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The Refreshing Breezes of Real Political Campaign Are Blowing for Mexico

March 13, 1988|JORGE G. CASTANEDA | Jorge G. Castaneda is a professor of political science at the National Autonomous University of Mexico.

MEXICO CITY — As the Mexican presidential campaign heats up--the election is only four months away--there are signs that something is changing in Mexico, if only slowly, and the change is largely a welcome one.

The outcome of the July 6 presidential election is not in doubt--Carlos Salinas de Gortari, the candidate of the PRI (Institutional Revolutionary Party), will be elected. But for the first time since 1952, and perhaps even since 1940, Mexico is experiencing a real political campaign fought out among significant, representative political currents. Equally important, the undeniably widespread discontent, brought about by six years of economic stagnation and today's unprecedented levels of inflation, is increasingly being channeled electorally.

The most important development, and undoubtedly the least expected one among many observers of the Mexican situation, is the impressive showing so far by the left-of-center presidential candidacy of Cuauhtemoc Cardenas. The son of Mexico's most revered president of this century and former PRI governor of the state of Michoacan is proving conclusively that the traditional progressive, nationalistic streak of Mexican political ideology is still profoundly rooted in Mexican society.

The massive, spontaneous and fervent outpouring of support for Cardenas in rural areas, such as the La Laguna agricultural region in the north, where Gen. Lazaro Cardenas' land reform transformed peasant lives half a century ago, as well as poll data showing Cardenas running a strong second to Salinas in Mexico City, are solid evidence of an often-misunderstood paradox. Conservatives on both sides of the border who have argued vehemently in recent years in favor of political change and electoral reform in Mexico have not stopped to think that if it were to take place, the left might well profit from it far more than the right.

A second important trend has surfaced in the campaign of Manuel Clouthier and the right-of-center PAN (National Action Party). His candidacy is showing strength not only in the north and some cities, but also in traditional but long-ignored PAN bastions such as Yucatan. In the late 1960s PAN almost won a governorship in that poor, largely rural state; since then, despite recurrent bursts of popularity, PAN's performance had been disappointing. But Clouthier proved that his popularity is not strictly regional during his recent swing through Yucatan, particularly in his enormously successful counterdemonstrations against Salinas in Merida, the state capital, on the very day in which the PRI candidate was present in the city.

Other trends are also encouraging. While no one is betting on a clean election come July, Salinas' statements, as well as his reputation and intelligence, are viewed by many as relative assurances against widespread electoral fraud, particularly in contested areas. It may still be unrealistic to expect spotless electoral behavior on the part of the PRI and the government in rural areas, where traditional alchemy has ensured past voter turnouts of at least 95% and PRI victories of roughly the same magnitude. The opposition is not yet able to post poll-watchers at every one of the more than 70,000 voting booths throughout the country, and the inertia that allows inflated PRI totals is probably still too strong for anyone to truly eliminate it.

But in the cities and more developed areas of the countryside, it may turn out that the PRI and the government will no longer be able to do business as usual on election day. Across many sectors of Mexican society there is a heightened suspicion of electoral fraud and, increasingly, outrage when it happens. Largely because of this political and cultural awakening, the political price to pay for widespread fraud in July could simply become too high, especially for a government that is pledging to change Mexico.

For decades and with few exceptions (the 1968 student movement was one of them) intellectual and political activity in Mexico has been limited to elite cliques and corporativist bureaucracies. No longer: It was a heart-warming sight last week to see thousands of admirers turning out to pay a richly deserved homage to Mexico's leading social critic and chronicler of the nation's transit into the future. The transformation of Carlos Monsivais into a folk hero is a symptom of the country's greening; these deeper changes represent the best guarantee against a relapse into the practices of the past.

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