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Dispirited Voters Waver : Expectations Are Sinking, but Mexicans Loyal to PRI

July 03, 1988|MARJORIE MILLER and DAN WILLIAMS | Times Staff Writers

MEXICO CITY — They call it the Mansion, although there is nothing glamorous about the rambling, four-story tenement that houses more than 60 families, each in a dank cement room. The inhabitants are restaurant workers, market vendors and day laborers who moved from the countryside a decade ago in search of a better life.

But life is not getting easier, say the women who take turns washing their clothes and breakfast dishes at communal sinks. Rents at the fly-infested Mansion have doubled in the last two years. The price of a chicken, including head and feet, equals the monthly rent. Mothers serve soups and rice to their children to replace ever more expensive meat.

"We're worse off every day," said Flor, 29, the mother of three. "The price of meat is in the clouds. We eat chicken once a week. I haven't bought any new clothes for myself in three years."

Echoed by workers and farmers throughout the country, Flor's lament is the central theme of this presidential campaign season in Mexico. During the administrationof President Miguel de la Madrid, whose six-year term ends in December, the buying power of most Mexican workers has dropped by 50%. Half the work force is without a full-time job, and Mexico, which once boasted one of the steadiest growth rates in Latin America, has stagnated. The value of the Mexican peso has declined sharply.

On Wednesday, Mexicans will go to the polls to choose a new president. The winner will almost surely be Carlos Salinas de Gortari, candidate of the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, a formidable electoral machine that has ruled the country for 60 years. Even as Mexicans complain of their economic straits, most of those interviewed recently by The Times say they will vote for the PRI, as the party is universally called, for reasons that range from habit to gratitude for favors large and small.

In Mexico, a Cliff-Hanger

The official vote count will probably give Salinas somewhere between 55% and 60% of the ballots cast. In most parts of the world, such a margin would amount to a landslide; but in Mexico, with its history of one-sided elections, this is a real cliff-hanger.

Voters in record numbers are expected to look for alternatives to the PRI, either in the left-wing candidacy of renegade PRI politician Cuauhtemoc Cardenas or the conservative candidacy of businessman Manuel J. Clouthier.

The reason for the defections, most analysts here agree, is that Mexicans are simply worse off today than six years ago when they last voted for a president. The country is in a revolution of sinking expectations.

Such despair has elicited promises by Salinas to restore economic expansion. His aides talk of 4% annual growth and steady prices.

Voters Are Not Impressed

But scores of voters interviewed at the Mansion and elsewhere were not impressed. Many say the government makes promises every six years that are conveniently forgotten after the election. They expect their lives to get worse before they get better.

"From here on, things are going to be very tough," complained Nicolas Valdez, a factory worker in Valle de Chalco.

Despite this skepticism, the PRI can expect support. In some cases, voters said the party is the only one they know anything about. Others said they would vote PRI because the PRI would win. Fear is another factor; according to a recent Gallup Poll, more than half of Mexicans surveyed said they expect social unrest if a party other than the PRI takes power.

Some simply see their vote as a way of saying thanks for some favor or service provided by the PRI. Flor, for instance, noted that the PRI local government had earned loyalty at the Mansion by lending a helping hand there. Not long ago, PRI representatives provided paint and a chimney to funnel smoke from a wood-burning boiler that heats the building's eight showers. Occasionally, the PRI sends a bus to take the women and children to a museum and lunch--luxuries they could never afford on their own.

"The PRI brings us toys on Children's Day," said Flor, who declined to give her last name. "And on Mother's Day they give us tickets to go to the movies."

In the Valle de Chalco, a squatter community on Mexico City's eastern outskirts, one of Salinas' campaign sign promotes "a more rational use of water." The crisp slogan overlooks one detail: There is no water in the Valle de Chalco, except for wide rain puddles that have turned unpaved streets to mud.

When they can make their way through the mud, giant tankers haul water to the residents of Valle de Chalco. Water is rationed by its high cost.

"We pay 1,000 pesos (about 45 cents) per drum," said 30-year-old Nicolas Valdez. "A drum lasts about two days." Those who can't afford to buy, collect polluted rainwater in buckets and boil it.

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