MEXICO CITY — As his Chevy van careened through this capital's manic streets--taking him from a two-hour symposium with the deaf and blind to a rally at the General Hospital--Cuauhtemoc Cardenas used every muscle in his face to make something that only remotely resembled a smile.
"See, I smile," said the opposition leader, whose angry scowl has been a permanent fixture on Mexico's political horizon for more than a decade. "I don't think I'm too serious. I've always smiled, and I've always been serious. But I think the people want serious people in government."
With just days left before the first elections for the mayor of this, one of the world's largest, most chaotic and confounding cities, people also seem to want Cardenas' anger.
The 62-year-old leftist, drawing on deep discontent with Mexico's status quo, is so far ahead in opinion polls that prominent Mexican historian Enrique Krauze recently said, "One does not have to be a great psychic to predict that Cuauhtemoc Cardenas will be elected mayor of Mexico City."
Projecting a populist image through his trademark scowl, Cardenas is more than just the leading mayoral candidate in the upcoming elections, in which Mexican voters also will elect six state governors, a new lower house of Congress and a third of the nation's Senate.
For many here, Cardenas has become a singular symbol of democracy and change in a city exhausted by seven straight decades of aloof ruling party mayors, all of whom have been presidential appointees in the past.
Indeed, if on July 6 Cardenas and his Democratic Revolution Party, or PRD, win the mayoralty--a post so powerful it has been known by the title "The Regent"--analysts say the victory will rank among the most bitter defeats in the 67 years of power of the Institutional Revolutionary Party. To some, it may perhaps be the beginning of the end of the ruling PRI itself.
"To be mayor of Mexico City is not like being the mayor of Washington, D.C., or even of New York City," historian Krauze said in a recent speech titled "A New Era: Post-Election Mexico."
"Mexico City," he noted, "has been the historic center of the country for at least 500 years--the economic, political, social and even theological center. The Aztecs called their Mexico City Tenochtitlan, 'the navel of the moon.' Only a place like Jerusalem or Beijing or perhaps Moscow carries the same geographical weight. Not by chance did Boris Yeltsin win the Russian presidency from his privileged platform as mayor of Moscow. And in the year 2000, at the age of 66, Cardenas too could become a Mexican Yeltsin and return to the place where he spent his childhood: Mexico's presidential residence of Los Pinos."
Cardenas, in fact, is the son of one of the country's most beloved presidents, Lazaro Cardenas, who governed from 1934 to 1940. But at the core of his support here is not just his birthright. There is also his image as a stubborn, quixotic crusader, the recalcitrant victim in the 1988 presidential balloting of what many believe was fraud by his--and now the nation's--nemesis: former President Carlos Salinas de Gortari. Once loved but now reviled because of allegations of drug-related and other corruption by top officials in his administration, Salinas--who has steadfastly denied any wrongdoing--is living in self-exile in Ireland.
"This election in many ways is a referendum on the Salinas administration," said Ricardo Pascoe, a key Cardenas advisor. "Society is literally reeling with the revelations of a decadent, corrupt regime. You can see society speaking through the kids who put on Salinas masks and devil horns every day and make a fool of him in the streets.
"In a certain sense," Pascoe continued, "it's a kind of poetic justice. Cuauhtemoc was just so belittled and spat upon, the object of so much spite under Salinas. And through it all, Cuauhtemoc just stiffened his position. One of his major traits is his stubbornness."
But as Cardenas nears the prize in midterm elections that many analysts say will mark Mexico's turning point to genuine democracy, it is his stubborn adherence to leftist ideology that worries some in big business. They privately fear that a Mayor Cardenas could scare off billions of dollars in private and foreign investment here.
Cardenas' father is a figure worshiped by many Mexicans for kicking out U.S. oil companies and nationalizing Mexico's petroleum industry, and the younger Cardenas unabashedly shares some of his father's ideals.