MONTERREY, Mexico — There were images of electoral excitement recently in this northern industrial city as Mexico's ruling party launched its steamroller presidential campaign.
A huge crowd turned up in the city's long central plaza and greeted the candidate, Carlos Salinas de Gortari, with banners and shouts of "Viva!" Bouncy country ballads filled the crisp night air, laser beams spelled out PRI--the initials of the Institutional Revolutionary Party--on skyscraper walls and fireworks lit the sky.
But just two weeks before, there were other, conflicting images that the ruling party would just as soon forget. In the neighboring state of Coahuila, gubernatorial and municipal elections were marred by violence and charges of fraud. PRI-affiliated unionists armed with sticks clashed with opposition supporters, and someone shot at the homes of opposition electoral officials.
Over the past three years, protests or violence in connection with state elections have become almost routine in parts of Mexico.
The contrasting scenes present a problem for the PRI: how to persuade people to put their faith in the vote when many suspect widespread electoral fraud. In Coahuila, for instance, it is estimated that about 60% of the voters did not go to the polls. For the PRI, which declares itself "the party of the majority," such a turnout is embarrassing.
There is no doubt about who will win the presidential election next July. The PRI has not lost such a vote in its 60-year history. But PRI officials worry that apathy, a sign of the party's declining prestige and hold on the public, will undercut the legitimacy of their victory.
"We reject foul practices," said Salinas, promising that elections will be clean. "To defeat abstentionism, we have to make the people confident that their vote really counts, that their vote really makes a difference."
Salinas made the remarks just two days before the Coahuila elections. The message apparently didn't get through to PRI electoral organizers.
In the Coahuila steel town of Monclova, one PRI official on the way to a polling station was found carrying marked ballots. The discovery set off a melee with opposition supporters, who were ultimately placed under arrest. In some polling stations, the ballot boxes were hidden by blankets or boards and opposition observers were expelled, according to local press reports.
The main opposition group, the conservative National Action Party, charged that ballot boxes were stuffed and voting lists rigged to ensure a PRI victory in the mayoral race in Monclova and elsewhere.
The PRI mayoral candidate won by 1,000 votes in Monclova, ending a nine-year opposition reign in city hall. For the past several years, National Action has been Mexico's No. 2 vote-getter in local elections.
'It's a Joke'
"It's a joke on the citizens," complained Teresa Ortuno, the National Action candidate for governor.
There is some question whether the PRI actually needed any voting shenanigans to win big in Coahuila. National Action's candidate for governor was considered a weak vote-getter. But, as it had in northern elections in recent years, the PRI mounted an impressive organizational effort to get out the vote.
By pulling out all the stops, the party seemed to be sending a clear message: The PRI would win "all of everything," as party jargon puts it, with the aim of destroying opposition footholds in the north.
Mexicans call the PRI election sweep in the north in recent years the quest for "the fully loaded automobile."
"The notion of National Action strength in the north is a myth," PRI Congressman Romeo Flores told foreign reporters. "They hold almost no offices anywhere."
Flores blamed the violence in Monclova on the opposition, asserting that it had embraced a "culture of violence" in an effort to attract undue attention.
Whether wiping out opposition hopes can persuade voters to rally around the PRI candidate in the presidential election is yet to be proved. Until his nomination last month, Salinas, 39, was the government's budget and planning secretary. He is considered the author of economic policies that have brought a leaden combination of unemployment and runaway inflation to Mexico.
Tough as times are, economic problems have done little to restrain the PRI's political machinery. Salinas chartered a train to travel from Mexico City to Monterrey, the capital of Nuevo Leon state. Sparkling white buses ferried his large entourage around the city. Free lunches at Monterrey's best hotels sated the appetites of prominent supporters.
Salinas also traveled by helicopter to his ancestral home in Agualeguas, northeast of Monterrey. Security was provided by the military's presidential guard, and the presidential public relations office laid much of the groundwork for the visit.