MEXICO CITY — On the eve of Mexico's most hotly contested presidential election, the government has prohibited a local affiliate of the Gallup organization from taking a survey of voters as they leave the polls today.
The decision, announced Tuesday, is almost certain to raise suspicions that the government plans to commit fraud to aid its candidate, Carlos Salinas de Gortari. In Mexico, official results are not released until several days after the polls close.
Mexican observers widely view the election as a turning point in the country's politics because of the unprecedented challenge to the dominance of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, which has ruled for 60 years. Even though Salinas is a sure winner, the appeal of the PRI, as the party is known, has sunk to its lowest point ever, and opposition from the left is unexpectedly strong.
For the PRI, the credibility of the election has become as much of an issue as winning, because there is widespread concern among both party and government officials that the public will not believe the results. Vote fraud in Mexico has been a major issue in the campaign, although both incumbent President Miguel de la Madrid and Salinas have promised clean elections.
On Tuesday, officials at the Ministry of the Interior explained the surprise decision to ban exit polling by saying that the government has the obligation to "protect the secrecy of the vote" and therefore would forbid anyone to survey voters even after they cast their ballots.
And Amador Rodriguez, a lawyer and official at the Interior Ministry, said: "The people are unaccustomed to having surveys taken. It could create chaos."
'Cannot Permit Confusion'
One PRI official offered a different explanation. Said Maria Emilia Farias, a member of the Federal Election Commission: "The vote count is done by electoral organizations. We cannot permit confusion. What if the poll says one thing and the electoral result is not the same? Who are people going to believe?"
Gallup spokesman Richard Burkholder told The Times that his organization "strongly condemns" the decision but would not defy the government ban. The poll was to be conducted by Gallup de Mexico, which is based in Mexico City.
The Gallup organization, which is based in New Jersey, received notification of the ban last Friday.
Polling is a new phenomenon in Mexican elections. In recent weeks, it became a sensitive issue as a variety of surveys gave different accounts of the relative strength of the candidates.
Poll Touted by PRI
A Gallup poll released in June was considered by some the most accurate reflection of the voters' choices and was touted by PRI officials as an indication of Salinas' strength. The poll gave Salinas 56% of the vote.
In the same survey, rivals Cuauhtemoc Cardenas, on the left, received 23% and rightist Manuel J. Clouthier had 19%. Cardenas' showing surprised many and indicates he may capture second place. Two remaining minor-party candidates will split a small percentage.
Today's exit poll was to be sponsored by ECO, a Los Angeles-based television production company affiliated with Televisa, Mexico's giant private TV network. The owners of Televisa have openly allied themselves with the PRI, and its news broadcasts have dedicated exceptionally full coverage to Salinas' campaign.
Salinas, 40, is De la Madrid's handpicked successor, and the PRI is expected to mobilize millions of votes in the candidate's favor.
Despite the foregone nature of the election, neither the organizational might of the PRI nor its dominance of the nation's media have obscured the party's faltering hold on the Mexican people. And a weakening PRI has long been looked upon as a sign of potentially deep political change in Mexico.
"The PRI has never come under such a siege," said Adrian Lajous, a newspaper columnist and commentator on presidential affairs.
And economist Jorge Castaneda said: "People can now for the first time envision a future outside the PRI. Something is moving in Mexico at last."
PRI strength has been sapped by defections and by the public perception that the governing party is neither able to restore growth to Mexico's economy nor to solve a wide range of pressing problems, from government corruption to crime in the streets.
PRI officials and private polls give Salinas 55% to 60% of the vote, compared with about 70% won by De la Madrid six years ago. In elections dating back over six decades, PRI presidential candidates generally have won at least 80% of the vote.
His main rivals, Cardenas and Clouthier, are expected to win around 20% of the vote each.
An indication that the PRI is no longer the sole political player could be seen in a series of rallies at the Zocalo, Mexico's City's main square.