- The Washington Times - Friday, June 30, 2000

MEXICO CITY Mexicans will experience something completely new when they vote for their next president on Sunday suspense about the outcome.

The final polls show a statistical dead heat between challenger Vicente Fox of the center-right National Action Party (PAN) and Francisco Labastida of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which has governed for the last 71 years.

In what is seen as the cleanest election in Mexico's history, both men are hovering around 40 percent support with Cuauhtemoc Cardenas of the left-wing Democratic Revolution Party a distant third. About 15 percent of voters were undecided when polling was cut off last weekend, leaving the possibility of a last-minute swing to one of the candidates.

"It is going to be a test pitting the PRI's party apparatus against general exasperation with the PRI, combined with the political marketing that made Fox into a plausible candidate," said political analyst Alfonso Zarate.

Fearing the first electoral defeat in its history, the PRI has sidelined advisers like Democratic Party strategist James Carville who had sought to modernize the party's image and turned back to its traditional machine backed by legions of activists in all parts of the country.

Aided by an increasingly partisan mass media, the party has also begun to portray Mr. Fox as an unpatriotic liar and a closet authoritarian, and to hint that he is mentally unstable and impotent.

The 6-foot-6, cowboy-boot-wearing Mr. Fox is putting his faith in his tough-guy image as the only candidate able to face up to the PRI, and a campaign slogan proclaiming, "We have already won."

As the day of truth approaches, he has also been appealing for Cardenas followers to abandon the veteran politician on his third doomed bid for the presidency.

The unprecedented suspense will not necessarily end on Election Day, as a narrow win by Mr. Labastida would almost certainly be challenged by Mr. Fox.

The election has been organized by a genuinely independent electoral body for the first time ever, due to a 1996 electoral reform that separated the Federal Electoral Institute from the Interior Ministry.

The elections will be watched by about 800 international observers, including a Carter Center delegation led by former President Jimmy Carter, an International Republican Institute delegation headed by former Secretary of State James Baker, and a National Democratic Institute group topped by former Texas Gov. Ann Richards, and ex-Guatemalan President Ramiro de Leon Carpio.

Thousands of national electoral observers will also be watching for fraud.

Most commentators say the new institutional safeguards and pressure from observers mean blatant fraud will be difficult, making these the cleanest elections in Mexico's history.

However, election watchdogs have already collected evidence of subtle pre-election irregularities.

This includes mass donations in poverty-stricken areas of construction materials, bicycles and even washing machines, on the understanding that the recipients vote for the party and the aggressive use of federal anti-poverty programs to promote the PRI. Government workers have reported pressure to campaign for Mr. Labastida or risk their jobs.

"If Vicente Fox thinks there was fraud, he's going to raise a lot of hell," said Adolfo Aguilar Zinser, one of the candidate's closest advisers, who is tipped as his likely foreign minister.

Countering PRI warnings that the opposition is preparing to plunge the country into chaos, he said, "We are not hostages of their stability, we are promoters of democracy, and if they fail to deliver democracy they fail to sustain stability. And if the international community sees it otherwise, tough."

Mr. Aguilar Zinser conceded it is difficult to predict the effectiveness of any post-ballot protest.

Equally unpredictable is the reaction of the PRI in the event of a PAN victory. The party's tradition of dirty tricks makes a credible cry of fraud difficult, but a 70-year-old political giant does not disappear overnight. A top union leader linked to the party has already warned that a Fox victory would trigger a general strike.

"What the undecided voters will do, how many people lied [to the pollsters] because they were afraid to say they were voting against the PRI, or ashamed to say that they would" all could produce a surprise on Sunday, said analyst Carlos Elizondo of the Cide think tank.

"All this is meat for speculating political scientists, but the conclusions derived say much more about our hopes and fears than about what will happen on Sunday."

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