- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 2, 2000

Mexican political candidates Vincente Fox and Jorge Labastida are in a dead heat, in what promises to be the most atypical election in Mexico's history. Unlike any other in the past seven decades, this election is expected to be clean relatively. In addition, the unorthodox political alliances taking place will make today's vote worth watching.

Mr. Labastida is the candidate for the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), a political party that is far from revolutionary indeed. The party has held the world's longest monopoly on presidential power, ruling Mexico for 71 years. For decades the PRI was able to buy or fake many election victories it didn't deserve.

According to the latest polls, the PRI candidate is just barely ahead of Mr. Fox, the candidate for the conservative National Action Party (PAN), with about 34 percent of the vote compared to 32 percent. The election could easily go either way.

Although no ballot tampering is expected, thanks to the preparations and close monitoring of the trusted Federal Electoral Institute, observers are concerned about some pre-election irregularities. In the coastal city of Villahermosa, for example, employees of Mexico's state-owned oil company Pemex said Monday the company and union officials were pressuring them to vote for Mr. Labastida. The same goes for Pemex workers in the northern city of Monterrey. Pemex has denied the accusations, but hasn't launched an investigation. Mr. Fox, meanwhile, has been accused of illegally accepting campaign donations from foreigners.

All the same, Mr. Fox has been surprisingly successful in garnering support across ideological lines. In a May essay for Newsweek, the Mexican writer Jorge Castaneda said,"Mexican leftists can support Fox without betraying convictions or personal history." Mr. Fox's pledge to maintain the country's free public education system and not sell Pemex, coupled with an urgent need to break up entrenched crony corruption under the PRI, makes the conservative candidate the better choice for the left, said Mr. Castaneda. "If he wins, Mexican politics will never be the same."

Dismantling that system must be a top priority for the next administration. Due to crony politics, the Mexican taxpayer was strapped with paying a $100 billion bill for bailing out banks that went under after the 1994 economic crisis. Many of these bank owners were longtime friends of the PRI, and bought up the banks when former PRI President Carlos Salinas sold them off to private hands. Government oversight of the banks was irresponsibly lax.

Clearly, Mexico has daunting problems. In the last election, President Ernesto Zedillo's campaign slogan was "well-being for your family." But when the Mexican peso plummeted as soon as Mr. Zedillo took power in 1994, real wages (which weren't high to begin with) dropped nearly a quarter. Although the gross domestic product has grown an average of 5.1 percent per year in the past four years, wages have barely moved since the currency crisis.

Drug trafficking continues to be an unrelenting scourge on Mexican society, corrupting all institutions and taking many lives. Now that Mexico is beginning to achieve some kind of political plurality, perhaps politicians will be forced to address these challenges. This year's election is certainly encouraging, but Mexico isn't expected to make a miracle recovery anytime soon.

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