- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 14, 2000

For the first time in 70 years, opposition candidates have a chance to break the ruling party's stranglehold on Mexico's presidency in July in elections that government officials, as well as opposition parties, expect to be free, fair and transparent.

Polls show Vincente Fox, of the conservative business-oriented National Action Party (PAN), running neck-and-neck with the ruling party's candidate, Francisco Labastida, of the center-left Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI).

Several different polls published in Mexico show the two candidates at about 40 percent each, with Mr. Fox edging up and Mr. Labastida's numbers going south. A Group of Associated Economists poll conducted last month showed Mr. Fox at 44 percent, with Mr. Labastida at 36 percent.

"At the present time, the PRI should be getting ready to recognize its defeat by a few points," said PAN President Luis Felipe Bravo Mena during a stop in Washington last week.

He said despite never having been in power, PAN is confident in Mexico's electoral system.

"We have new democratic instruments and institutions … which we firmly believe allow for unbiased and objective elections," said Mr. Bravo Mena, speaking at the National Democratic Institute on Wednesday. "These elections open a new chapter in our history."

Since its founding in 1929, the PRI has dominated Mexican politics with an iron fist in a velvet glove. Using left-wing socialism and radical anti-Yankee nationalism, combined with back room deals, the plunder of the national oil reserves to buy various constituencies and through the outright theft of elections, the PRI was invincible.

But after Carlos Salinas came to power in 1988, in elections most observers thought were stolen by the PRI, Mexican voters had had enough.

In 1989, Mexico instituted electoral reform, creating a more open system, which allows for more participation. As a result, Mexican democracy has become much more competitive. Where candidates were once hand-picked by party bosses, last year the PRI held its first primary to determine its presidential candidate, for example.

The reforms have revolutionized Mexican politics, making them far more accountable to the electorate.

"All the bases are covered. The Federal Electoral Institute is ready to assign the result in favor of any candidate whatever the result. The outcome depends on the citizens who vote," said Jose Woldenberg, president of Mexico's Federal Electoral Institute in Washington last week.

Since 1989 and the electoral reforms, 11 of Mexico's 32 governorships have fallen from PRI hands. In 1989, 31 state congresses were 66 percent PRI. Today, there is only one with that percentage.

Mr. Bravo Mena agreed that the structure is in place, and has been tested, to ensure a fair election in July.

In the last elections, PAN contested the gubernatorial results in Jalisco, he said, an area known as "Jurassic Park" because it has long been a stronghold of PRI hard-liners known as "dinosaurs."

"We had to challenge it but we won," said Mr. Bravo Mena. "[Looking toward the July elections] there is no reason to impeach the process. We will follow the process. If the elections are clear and transparent we will recognize the results. We will challenge if necessary."

Mr. Bravo Mena's optimism was tempered by concerns that President Ernesto Zedillo may try to influence voting through the distribution of "social programs," or what is called "pork barrel spending" in Washington.

Mr. Woldenberg said that 58 million Mexicans have registered to vote and been issued laminated cards that carry their pictures and fingerprints. In the last elections, in 1997, 60 percent of the registered voters actually voted.

Mr. Woldenberg acknowledged that Mexico has had problems in the past, but he insisted that the checks are in place to ensure a free election.

"Between 1985 and 1994, there were many elections conflicts, but they are decreasing. In Mexico today we have laws and institutions and parties that allow us to guarantee the elections will be clear," he said.

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