MEXICO CITY — Town plazas overflow with flag-waving supporters when Carlos Salinas de Gortari, the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party's presidential candidate, makes a campaign appearance. Salinas' words reign on the country's airwaves and in newspapers, and no one can outdo his party machine in grandeur and organization.
"Let Mexico speak," Salinas confidently invites peasants, workers and anyone else who comes to see the man who is guaranteed to be their next president. The PRI, as the ruling party is known, has dominated Mexican politics for 60 years, and Salinas will win the July 6 presidential vote, political observers agree.
Despite the certainty of victory, Salinas' campaign has been anything but a victory trot. When Mexico speaks to Salinas, it almost always voices complaints about the ruling party and the government in which he has figured prominently. In a sense, Salinas is on a treadmill of his own making.
"The government is perceived to be Carlos Salinas and since the government is unpopular, so is he," said Adrian Lajous, a columnist for the influential daily newspaper Excelsior. "Salinas is smart and charming, but none of this has come off in the campaign."
Economic analyst Rogelio Ramirez de la O said: "Everywhere Salinas goes, he encounters men in sombreros without jobs, women who complain about inflation and ecological disasters."
By all accounts, Mexico's presidential election this year is the hardest fought in memory. Salinas' victory is assured only by the PRI's overwhelming talent for getting out the vote, by its continued hold on major labor and peasant groups and by its access to resources denied to opponents, including uncounted sums of government money.
Victory is not the same as popular acceptance, and just how many Mexican voters actually favor Salinas is a subject of debate. Some commentators openly talk of a PRI victory by plurality only, a possibility never considered before now. Salinas himself in interviews has acknowledged the PRI's fading popularity.
His campaign advisers and government election officials are said to be debating intensely the percentage of the vote that should be properly awarded for the winning candidate in the event that they need to "adjust" the results. The figure most often heard is 60%.
Fundamentally, Salinas' campaign is dogged by the unhealthy state of Mexico's economy. Although a wage-and-price-control program instituted by the government of outgoing President Miguel de la Madrid has stabilized inflation, the cost to the average Mexican was great. Before the program went into effect in March, prices of basic goods rose by 85% while the minimum wage increased by only 35%.
That shock came on the heels of five years of economic stagnation and rising prices that have reduced the purchasing power of Mexican workers by half. Salinas, as budget and planning secretary, was largely responsible for economic policy under De la Madrid. No other PRI presidential campaign has been run in the midst of such a prolonged economic tailspin.
"This is hardly a record one can be overly proud to run on," said economist Jorge Castaneda.
"The PRI has lost legitimacy because of the economy," declared Lorenzo Meyer, a political analyst at the Colegio de Mexico, a graduate think tank in Mexico City.
Another part of Salinas' problems lies in the unusual determination of opposing candidates to make their mark at the voting booth. Of the five candidates running against the PRI, two are given a chance of winning 15% or more of the votes, even as counted officially. The attacks from the major candidate on the right, Manuel J. Clouthier of the National Action Party, and on the left, Cuauhtemoc Cardenas, a dissident PRI politician running under the banner of three minor parties, have chipped away at the normally overbearing self-confidence of the PRI.
Respond to Rhetoric
For the first time in memory, a PRI presidential candidate is having to respond to opposition campaign rhetoric. In years past, the PRI ignored its opponents.
Finally, the PRI itself is an issue in the campaign. The party has confirmed its talents as an electoral juggernaut, but to many voters, those very talents are reminders of just how unfair elections in Mexico have become.
"They even have the army out preparing their rallies," complained Geraldo Romero, a Popsicle vendor in Mexico City's Alameda Park. At opposition rallies, it is common to hear audiences shout, "Death to the PRI," or, "Get the PRI thieves out."
Nothing so passionate is heard at rallies for Salinas, unless of course it is criticism aimed at him.
One speaker disrupted a recent closed party meeting in Mexico City by directly criticizing the campaign.
"This country has always been lied to," said the speaker, Feliciano Bejar, a sculptor. "I have learned that if one tells lies, one must at least remember what was said. But each day, there is a new lie."
Other than such outbursts, the PRI campaign is pretty much a set piece.