Flip Side of Mexico's Politics: Cleaner Elections Up North

WHAT do Tabasco, Yucatan, and Veracruz have in common? All are Mexican states that have gained wide attention over recent months for charges of electoral fraud and sometimes-violent postelection protests.

Those unresolved conflicts contribute to an image of political instability in Mexico. But a different pattern is emerging elsewhere. Other states are displaying a more mature and tranquil electoral process where rules are respected and where a change in the governing party is accepted as part of the democratic game.

Baja California is getting ready to vote Sunday in gubernatorial elections. Polls show voters will choose their candidate largely according to issues and individuals rather than by party. As in Jalisco in February and Chihuahua earlier this month, so far in Baja California few charges of traditional Mexican vote-buying and other shenanigans have surfaced.

This group of elections reveals that northern Mexican states are further along on the road of democratic transition than the southern ones with traditional ruling-party machines.

With the victory of the long-ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) in local elections in Chihuahua, a state governed by the opposition National Action Party (PAN) - and the PRI's chance of winning back the Baja California governorship from the PAN - the PRI is demonstrating it can legitimately win elections without the state's heavy hand at its side.

''Baja California is demonstrating to Mexico an election process where there is real competition, but without conflict and violence,'' says Leo Zuckermann Behar, a Mexican political scientist studying Baja California's political experience. ''The difference from states like Tabasco is that [in Baja California] there are clear and accepted electoral laws that are carried out, and that gives a climate of certainty and legitimacy,'' he says. ''It's an example for Mexico to follow.''

First PAN inroad in 1989

Baja California, which includes the economically important and cosmopolitan city of Tijuana, was the first state where the fair election of an opposition governor was accepted by the PRI and the national government, in 1989. Today, the PAN governs in three states.

What distinguishes Baja California and other northern states where fairer political competition is taking hold from the rest of Mexico is the north's more urban, politically sophisticated, and individualistic electorate.

''The political culture of the north is generally very different from what is found in the south,'' says Cesar Morones Servin, general director of the Center for Opinion Studies at the University of Guadalajara. ''In the northern states, a stronger economy means people are more mobile and less influenced by traditional [politics], whereas the south maintains a culture of submission to authority and traditional powers.

''The north simply has a more modern political attitude,'' he says.

Transition time for the PRI

Does this mean that Mexico's political modernization will lead to the demise of the dominant PRI? Not necessarily.

Pointing to Chihuahua's elections, where a disgruntled electorate ''chastised'' the state-ruling PAN by turning back to the PRI, many political analysts say the PRI can still be successful by producing attractive candidates that win even without a political machine.

This is especially true in difficult economic times, such as now, when the PRI is perceived as more inclined than the PAN toward the kind of social spending that many families may want.

Baja California is a case in point. It was already affected economically by a recession in the state of California next door. Then Mexico fell into a deep recession of its own this year.

Now Mexicans are looking to place the blame. ''The PAN is paying the cost of being in power,'' says Alberto Arnaut, a political scientist at the Center for Economic Education and Studies in Mexico City.

Polls on Sunday's gubernatorial race are mixed and generally close, showing that either the PAN's Hector Teran Teran or the PRI's Francisco Perez Tejada could win in a field of seven candidates. Mr. Morones says his polls show that Baja Californians are pleased with the improvement in services and education during six years of PAN rule, but blame the PAN for worsening crime.

Many Baja Californians thought that by sweeping in the opposition PAN in 1989 they ''would solve all the state's problems,'' Mr. Arnaut says. ''Now they are seeing politics in a harder reality. They view all the parties similarly as organizations interested in power.''

The outcome is a more skeptical but politically mature Mexican electorate, prepared to use the competing political parties to serve their own interests, he and others observers say. That should lead to a Mexico where elections are less a contributor to instability and more a reflection of public sentiment.

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