Five characters in search of the presidency of Mexico have hit the campaign trail, and the question remains the same as in the past 60 years: Will any of them seriously challenge the government party's monopoly on power?
Apart from Carlos Salinas de Gortari, the candidate of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), three other candidates are running from the left and two from the right. To paraphrase Dr. Samuel Johnson, their efforts indicate the triumph of expectation over experience, especially regarding those on the left, with its deplorable record for attracting votes.
This time, one of the challengers has the advantage of a name that weighs significantly in the revolutionary history of the country. Cuauhtemoc Cardenas, son of the revered past president, Lazaro Cardenas, had argued within the PRI for an open candidate-selection process. After Salinas was named in the usual manner, Cardenas decided to run as the candidate of the Authentic Party of the Mexican Revolution (PARM). His basic platform calls for redirecting the national economy toward a more socially conscious outreach and a return to nationalism.
Cardenas' candidacy was a negotiated affair among the leadership of several small parties, all of them splinters from the PRI. He also counts the support of a significant dissident fraction within the PRI, grouped under the umbrella of the so-called Democratic Current.
In a membership vote, Heberto Castillo was chosen to be the candidate of the Mexican Socialist Party (PMS), which is supposed to be the party of the unified left. Castillo has a solid reputation as an honest man; his platform is similar to Cardenas'.
For the second time in a row, Rosario Ibarra de Piedra, the mother of a young man "disappeared" in 1975 during the administration of Luis Echeverria, will be the candidate of the Workers Revolutionary Party. Her program sounds much like a "me too" of Cardenas'.
From the right, representing the National Action Party (PAN), the strongest and most important opposition party in the country, the candidate will be Manuel J. Clouthier. Last year, Clouthier, an entrepreneur, tried unsuccessfully to win the governorship of the state of Sinaloa.
Like Castillo, Clouthier was nominated democratically by elections within his party, something new in Mexican politics. His platform is based chiefly on criticism of the economic, social and political programs of the party in power and denunciation of corruption in the government.
Gumersindo Magana Negrete is the candidate of the minuscule Mexican Democratic Party (PDM), an extreme-right group that has some limited strength in central Mexico. His platform is basically anti-communist and pro-Catholic.
Many attempts were made in recent weeks to present a unified opposition front with only one candidate. There was even talk of primary elections to elect him or her, but the proposal did not prosper.
Historically, the biggest challenge to the official party has come from within. Since 1929, no one has gathered enough votes to defeat the official candidate. But there have been some serious threats to the PRI's monopoly, always from splinters of the so-called revolutionary family.
In 1929 and again in 1940, challengers emerged from within the official party. When their popularity became obvious, fraud and violence were used to ensure the official candidates' election by close to 100%, a margin that defied logic. In 1946, the government party tightened its controls on the candidate-selection process and chose Miguel Aleman. Foreign Minister Ezequiel Padilla ran anyway--and was credited with almost 25% of the vote. In 1952, the Aleman administration was challenged from within by a general, Miguel Henriquez Guzman; that same year, the PAN ran its own candidate for the first time, as did the Popular Party. Again, violence and fraud ensured the outcome for the newly renamed PRI.
Presidential elections have gone smoothly since then, but for 1988 there is opposition from within the party as well as outside. The question is whether any of the candidates will be able to pose a significant challenge to the powerful machinery of the PRI.
My answer is a clear no. The only chance that the opposition had to hurt the system would have been to present a united front against it, but the opposition political leaders proved to be unable to fight together for a common goal.
Perhaps the ideological differences between the left and the right are irreconcilable, and apparently few people believed in the strength and the sincerity of Cuauhtemoc Cardenas to be the candidate of a united opposition.
Whatever the outcome may be--and provided that violence can be avoided--from this election something positive for the country may arise. For the first time in a long time, the eight opposition parties will be functioning as real opposition parties, with a widened and politically better prepared membership, and the new electoral reform will allow for more representation of the opposition in the Chamber of Deputies. So it is to be expected that some unity will prevail among the opposition to make things tougher for the PRI. At the least, officials will be held more accountable for the way they govern.