Cardenas Vows to Lead Millions to Protest 'Robbing' of Presidency

Times Staff Writer

Cuauhtemoc Cardenas, the presidential candidate who is trying to end the dominance of Mexico's ruling party, is not likely to take office, yet he may well hold the future of Mexico in his hands.

Normally serene and measured, Cardenas has charged in uncharacteristically strong language that the government is robbing him of the presidency. To defend his election, Cardenas vowed, he will lead the millions of people who voted for him in legal battles, protests and street demonstrations nationwide.

The question, nervous politicians and observers ask, is just how far he wants to take them--as well as how far the Mexican people are willing to go.

Cautious Words

"We will stay within the limits established by the law," Cardenas said in an interview Monday.

But, although his words were cautious, the 54-year-old engineer is convinced that he won. Speaking in a steady voice, as if the force of right was on his side, he said: "We are going to win. Demonstrations and popular opinion will force them to recognize the legality of our election. The people know who won at their polls."

In the past, the vows of losing candidates have amounted to little, but the surprisingly strong showing of the Cardenas campaign and anger over Mexico's precarious economic conditions make this situation unpredictable. One factor: There is no end in sight to the economic decline that drove millions of voters to support Cardenas in the first place.

Official results show the government's candidate, Carlos Salinas de Gortari, winning the presidency with more than 50% of the vote--the smallest show of support for an Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) candidate in history. Salinas, 40, a Harvard-trained technocrat, may well have won with the PRI's traditional base of support among farmers, workers in government-backed unions and bureaucrats.

Beliefs Are Important

But many average Mexicans are convinced that the slow vote count after last Wednesday's elections is a sure sign of fraud and can only mean that Cardenas really won. And in Mexican politics, what people commonly believe is sometimes more important than the truth.

"I think Salinas won, but I also think people in general are prepared to believe that as long as the PRI showed victory, they stole the elections," said Adrian Lajous, a political analyst and columnist for the daily newspaper Excelsior.

"The reaction will depend on the depth of their feelings. In the past, people would scream fraud, talk about it, and that would be the catharsis. I would like to think that will happen again, but I can't forget this is a country where there was a revolution," Lajous said.

Since the PRI took power 60 years ago, politics in Mexico have been relatively free of violence. Cardenas, a recent PRI dissident and the son of one of the party's founders, is preaching nonviolence but said he is concerned about keeping all of his supporters in control.

"This is a provocation by the government, and there are a lot of people out there with hot tempers," he said.

Instead, Cardenas said he will travel the country explaining to supporters that, despite what they see on pro-government television, he won the vote.

He said he will encourage demonstrations, lead some of the protests himself and try to ensure the election of his party's congressmen by the Electoral College, which must approve the new Congress in August. The Congress, in turn, must ratify the new president in September, and Cardenas said he will be there to fight for the six-year term that he believes is his.

Cardenas spoke to two reporters in his office at the estate of his late father, Gen. Lazaro Cardenas, one of Mexico's most popular presidents who distributed land to peasants and nationalized Mexico's oil industry. Ironically, Cardenas' father also was president the last time the government was accused of stealing the presidential election from an opponent, in 1940.

Named for Warrior

Cuauhtemoc Cardenas--named for an Aztec warrior who died fighting the Spanish conquerors--followed his father into politics and the ruling party. He held several government posts, including governor of the state of Michoacan.

Last year, Cardenas left the PRI after losing an internal battle to become the party's presidential candidate on a platform of economic reform and the opening of the party's nomination system. For 60 years, PRI-backed presidents have selected their successors and later revealed their names in what was called the destape . Elections were a way to legitimize the handpicked candidate, who was virtually guaranteed the presidency.

Although he lost the internal battle for change, Cardenas may well have brought an end to that system with the stunning success of his independent presidency, political observers say. His campaign served not only as a repository of public frustration with the PRI but also perhaps showed that the uncharismatic Salinas is the wrong man at the wrong time. As secretary of budget and planning in the current administration, Salinas was responsible for many of the government's unpopular economic programs.

"The destape is over," said Adolfo Aguilar Zinser, a political analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. "The PRI has lost their ability to impose a decision from the top."

Cardenas ran on the ticket of four leftist parties. Although he is a dull speaker, Cardenas won millions of votes with his magic name, populist message and a sober manner that many Mexicans find attractive. Novelist Carlos Monsivais termed Cardenas' attraction "the charisma of no charisma."

The PRI has conceded that Cardenas won in Mexico City, where nearly a quarter of the nation's 85 million people live, as well as in the central states of Mexico, Michoacan and Morelos. In a country as highly centralized as Mexico, that represents a lot of power for the opposition, even if Salinas takes the presidency.

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