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Mexico 1994: High Anxiety as Vote Nears

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Mexicans dread the sixth and final year of a presidential administration.

These are the years when currency devaluations wipe out life savings and huge sums of money disappear from government coffers.

Constitutionally forbidden to seek reelection, lame-duck presidents feel the near-imperial power that they have exercised for more than five years slipping away. They try to secure their place in history with dramatic gestures, such as when Jose Lopez Portillo nationalized the banks in 1982, dealing a near-mortal blow to an economy already reeling from plummeting oil prices and an impossible foreign debt.

But those exaggerated displays of authority are facades. Behind them, real power is crumbling, creating a vacuum that will not be filled until the new president takes office.

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Sixth years thus become periods of great uncertainty. But even by sixth-year standards, 1994 is a time of notable anxiety.

A peasant uprising in the south and the assassination of the leading presidential candidate in the north have shattered the myth of Mexican stability. The threat of violence hangs over the Aug. 21 presidential election, the most closely contested in 65 years.

“The old balance has been upset,” said Hector Aguilar Camin, a novelist and essayist who has written extensively about the struggle for power in Mexico. “Traditions, taboos and beliefs have been defied. . . . These conditions have aggravated what is always a difficult sixth year.”

A decade of radical, free-market economic reforms has inspired sometimes violent demands for equally radical social and political change. Increasingly, Mexicans believe that this will be a watershed year, when rulers decide between a more brazenly authoritarian regime that will conserve their power or a more open political system that will give a voice to those who have been excluded.

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The most progressive voices in the government talk about a president who will not have an absolute majority at the polls and who will share decision-making with a revitalized Congress and more independent Supreme Court. President Carlos Salinas de Gortari has vowed that he will turn over power to whoever wins the election.

Meanwhile, the army is modernizing its riot-control equipment in what many see as a thinly veiled threat that the government will respond to any post-election violence with repression.

“There is a double risk of ungovernability and authoritarianism,” Aguilar Camin said. “Once the violence is let loose, it may not be containable. The public has rejected violence thus far, but violence is a tangible possibility. If people do not approve of the election results, (the possibility) is high.”

In mid-January, after a cease-fire was declared in the Chiapas peasant uprising that left at least 150 people dead, shopkeepers across the country put up signs that read, “Mexico Rejects Violence.” More appeared when ruling party candidate Luis Donaldo Colosio was assassinated in March.

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But despite such sentiments, violence is increasing. Drug dealers feel free to carry out vendettas at birthday parties in the nation’s best hotels; a bomb explosion that killed two people in June at the Camino Real in Guadalajara was blamed on the same traffickers whom police implicated in a 1993 airport shootout that killed a Roman Catholic cardinal and six other people.

Ordinary citizens are also turning to violence, convinced that the police are ineffective. In May, villagers from Marcelino Rodriguez, about 60 miles outside Mexico City, hunted down a gang of four car thieves and lynched them.

After 100 car and van thefts in the past year, Axochiapan County Commissioner Ubaldo Pacheco said, “people are tired of putting up with all the kidnapings and robberies.”

Wealthy businessmen, including the country’s leading banker and a top executive of the second-largest retailer, have been kidnaped in broad daylight and held for ransom.

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“The government is having problems assuring even the basic minimum of public safety,” Aguilar Camin said.

The ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party’s replacement presidential candidate, Ernesto Zedillo, has campaigned hard on the issue of law and order, from more effective police work to a more independent judiciary.

Despite that effort, many polls show that the backlash to the climate of violence and uncertainty has favored the conservative opposition National Action Party (PAN), which represents traditional values of family and church and favors continuing free-market reforms. Presidential candidate Diego Fernandez de Cevallos has often led the weekly MORI de Mexico poll.

But the lead has been narrow, and other surveys show Zedillo ahead. Further complicating matters, Cuauhtemoc Cardenas, the third-place candidate, is polling as well as he did in 1988, when he surprised everyone on election day by forging ahead in early returns.

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The neck-and-neck three-way presidential race has thrown an additional element of uncertainty into the usual sixth-year blues.

Mexicans used to have a snappy comeback when foreigners bragged that, in their nations, election results were televised within hours after the polls closed. “We know who will win months before the polls open,” went the joke.

No more. Open fraud has become unacceptable even as winning without cheating has become dicier.

The fragility of the electoral process became clear in June, when highly respected Interior Secretary Jorge Carpizo MacGregor threatened to quit. His announcement provoked a crisis that was resolved only after a weekend of intense talks in which Salinas persuaded him to stay.

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“We all know that there is a credibility problem,” said Ignacio Pichardo, chairman of the ruling party, known by its acronym, PRI. “It is not enough to win. We must also convince the voters that we have won.”

Both tasks will be more difficult this year. Defections of dissidents over the past decade have left the PRI without the clear majority the governing party has enjoyed since its founding 65 years ago.

“The PRI used to be the only party, for historical reasons,” Pichardo said. “Now it is the dominant party, but as Mexican society has evolved, becoming more diverse and better educated, new political currents and parties have appeared. We have to compete with them for political support.”

The votes of the PRI faithful are no longer enough to elect a candidate, he said. While Pichardo stopped short of accepting the possibility that no one will win a majority, he emphasized that the constitution allows the candidate who wins the most votes to govern.

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Constitutional changes also clear the way, for the first time, for an opposition Congress. Even if the president and Congress are of the same party, provisions in the new electoral law assuring the opposition seats in the Mexican Senate will make significant changes in what politicians call “the most boring club in the country.”

“We will be a lot tougher and more scrupulous,” predicted Gabriel Jimenez, PAN Senate candidate for Jalisco state, where Guadalajara is located. “It will not be the same as when the president has a huge majority from his own party.”

Those changes are all part of what pollster Federico Reyes Heroles has called “the sound uncertainty of democracy.” But Mexico may still face several months of upheaval on the road to that uncertainty.

Salinas has tried to crack down on sixth-year corruption by ordering the federal comptroller--the equivalent of the U.S. General Accounting Office--to outline a transition plan and an auditing system.

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If the plan works, it is likely to anger bureaucrats accustomed to enriching themselves during “the year of the Hidalgo,” a play on words involving a silver coin and a vulgar curse on anyone “stupid” enough to leave anything behind when he leaves office.

If the plan doesn’t work, the administration will face the wrath of taxpayers who have lost take-home pay to higher tax rates and stricter fiscal enforcement.

Attacking corruption on a different front, the new attorney general--the fifth since Salinas took office--has begun yet another purge of the federal police. In the past, such purges have proven a double-edged sword as out-of-work police look for new sources of income, usually illicit and sometimes destabilizing.

For example, the recent rash of kidnapings of businessmen has been blamed on former police officers, and fired agents have been implicated in the Colosio murder.

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The mounting fear is that political and social instability will wreck the economic strides the country has made. If investors lose confidence, the outgoing president could once again find himself forced to devalue the peso, as his predecessors did in 1976 and 1982.

Further, despite Salinas’ pledge to respect the will of the voters, it remains unclear whether hard-liners within his party would accept defeat at the polls. But in this sixth year, Mexicans insist, one alternative is no longer viable.

“It is too late to go back to the old, authoritarian Mexico,” Aguilar Camin said. “The country’s political life has been reordered, and the old rules are gone. But the new rules are neither clear nor universally accepted.”


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