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Presidential Race Reaches 9, Thanks to the Smaller Parties : Most such groups survive on meager allowances, with no hopes of winning. Are they the nation's conscience or merely colorful?

August 16, 1994|JUANITA DARLING | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MEXICO CITY — Their faces are blips that flash across the television screen on the nightly news, accompanied by a rapid-fire voice-over. Their parties are an alphabet soup that only the most avid follower of politics can sort out.

Pollsters admit that they probably undercount their support in survey results, putting asterisks beside their names, meaning less than 1%.

In Sunday's Mexican presidential sweeps, they are the field entries, six long shots in what's clearly a three-horse race. At nine, this is the largest group of presidential candidates in Mexican history, the result of electoral changes that penalize parties that do not run a presidential ticket by cutting off their federal funds. That change is widely believed to be aimed at eliminating coalitions, such as the one that backed Cuauhtemoc Cardenas in the 1988 election. Many Mexicans believe Cardenas won the election but that it was stolen from him by fraud.

"The idea was to pulverize the opposition vote," Cecilia Soto, presidential candidate of the Workers Party, said of the new regulations.

The exact role of the minor parties in the Mexican political process is highly disputed. Most survive on meager allowances from the government based on the percentage of the vote they received in the most recent election. A few can produce strong showings in a couple of states or towns, but nothing more.

With no hope of winning, are they the conscience of a political system based on back-room deals that pass as pragmatism, or merely spoilers? Do they provide party faithful a channel for expressing their beliefs, or simply a poor living for their leaders? Will legislative reform provide a more effective forum for their ideas, which are admittedly outside the mainstream?

If nothing else, the minor-party candidates are outspoken and colorful. They include three descendants of Mexican political icons plus a pudgy orator who has pledged to free an imprisoned labor boss if he is elected and join the Chiapas guerrillas if he is not; a businessman turned ecologist, and--the most controversial--a physicist with a checkered political past and a campaign so effective rivals have aired suspicions of covert funding.

The latter, Soto, has undergone closer scrutiny than any other minor candidate, mainly because she is more visible. In May, some polls showed her support as high as 9%, although it has dropped off in recent surveys.

A June cartoon in the independent newspaper Reforma showed the three major candidates threatening a voter with chaos, violence or a discredited election unless he cast his ballot for them. The voter was left screaming desperately, "Ceciliaaaaa!"

"They attack me because I am growing," said Soto, a deputy for the northern state of Sonora. "This is a very centralist country. I am a provincial political figure, so by definition, I have no right to exist. Worse, I am a woman and I think. I do not write in La Jornada and I do not go to (novelist Carlos) Monsivais' book signings. I am an outsider."

While those characteristics may irritate the political elite, they appeal to voters.

"I plan to vote for her because she is smart," a lecturer told his language-school students. "Besides, she is pretty." Ruling party Chairman Ignacio Pichardo said she has "done surprisingly well."

But Soto and the Workers Party have fierce critics too. The Workers Party formed part of the Cardenas coalition in 1988, as did Soto, then a member of the Authentic Party of the Mexican Revolution (PARM). Her decision to switch parties just before receiving the Workers Party nomination raised eyebrows. "It's a party for hire," said Carlos Castillo, chairman of the conservative National Action Party (PAN), one of the Big Three of Mexican politics. The PAN has demanded audits of Workers Party campaign finances. "It's incredible, the kind and volume of advertising she has," Castillo said. "It's not possible. It's a trick."

Soto answers: "We have inexpensive, well-executed advertising. We bought 10 days of radio advertising before the World Cup. The rest is flyers and banners."

She charges that PAN is attacking her because of a close Senate race between their parties in the state of Durango, a Workers Party stronghold.

Aside from the PAN-Workers Party dispute, the big parties mainly see their smaller counterparts as siphoning off votes that rightly belong to the major candidates. The minor parties counter that they are an option for citizens who otherwise would not vote because none of the large parties reflect their beliefs.

On the left, there is the Popular Socialist Party, whose candidate, Marcela Lombardo, is the daughter of radical railroad union leader Vicente Lombardo, imprisoned following a notoriously bloody 1957 strike that ended independent unionism for decades.

The Popular Socialist deputies are among the few who donate their legislative salaries to the party. The top salary for party officials is $30 a day.

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