Mexico’s PRI seeks a 12th victory

WARREN CARAGATA August 22 1994


Mexico’s PRI seeks a 12th victory

WARREN CARAGATA August 22 1994




Mexico’s PRI seeks a 12th victory




In Chihuahua, Mexico, in the land of ranches and desert and red mountains, Ernesto Zedillo Ponce de León, presidential candidate of the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party and likely victor in the Aug. 21 elections, has drawn an overflow crowd. The saddle-backed municipal auditorium, usually home to pop concerts and basketball games, is literally packed to the rafters on an afternoon when the outside temperature is climbing towards 35° C and the indoor temperature is simply stifling. Banners in the national colors of red, white and green hang limply in the still air. The colors of the flag are also the colors of Zedillo’s party, known by the acronym PRI, which has never been shy about mixing partisan and national interest. And in the closing days of the election, that political mix seems to be paying off again, pointing the way to yet another PRI victory, this perhaps its most difficult, the party’s 12th consecutive triumph since 1929.

The sound system in the auditorium is cranked up to full volume, and Zedillo’s words are like cannon shot. His supporters interrupt often with applause, as when he promises a free breakfast program for poor schoolchildren. But in this hall, and elsewhere in Mexico, all is not as it first seems. Not everyone claps, not everyone cheers. Many just sit, fanning themselves with campaign literature. After 20 minutes, with the candidate still speaking, people begin to leave. Socorro Armand Arez is among them, her two young sons pulling at her arms, anxious to get home and play with their friends. She expresses ambivalence about the PRI’s candidate for president. “He’s good,” she says, “but the others are also good.”

If the PRI wins, it will not be because of any outpouring of affection for the party that has dominated Mexican political life for most of this century, but rather that many Mexicans simply cannot conceive of life without it. They are like Ricardo, a middle-aged Mexico City cabdriver who says that he will vote for the PRI because, quite simply, at least he knows who to pay off. At a time of national turmoil, voters are staying with what they know. “Sometimes I am surprised why people say they are going to vote for the PRI,” says Sergio Sarmiento, editorial director of

Mexico’s Encyclopedia Britannica and columnist for the daily El Financiero. In a Mexico full of new risks brought by economic upheaval and free trade with Canada and the United States, this does not seem to be the time for political experimentation. “When Mexicans thought about a real divorce from the PRI, they thought twice,” says pollster Vicente Licona y Galdi, director general of Indemerc/Louis Harris.

The PRI, well financed and well organized, has now built a solid lead in the polls over the centre-right National Action Party (PAN) led by lawyer Diego Fernández de Cevallos and the social democratic Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) led by Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas Solórzano, the son of a former president. In congressional elections that will

be held the same day, the party also seems assured of victory. But whatever the result, the business climate is unlikely to change, because all three major parties generally support the economic changes promoted by Carlos Salinas de Gortari, whose six-year term as president ends with the swearing in of his successor on Dec. 1. Barring an upset, the key issue then will be not so much who will replace Salinas at Los Pinos, the presidential compound, and what policies he will pursue, but whether the PRI can win the election fair and square— and even if it does, whether Mexicans will believe that the results are untainted by the kind of massive electoral fraud that many say robbed Cárdenas of victory in 1988 (page 19).

In a country that this year has seen a rash of turmoil—an armed rebellion in the poor southern state of Chiapas, the assassination I of Zedillo’s predecessor, Luis Donaldo ColoI sio, and two high-profile kidnappings—the possibility of a new round of violence after (Sunday’s election has occasioned considerable worry and debate. “There is very marked fear everywhere,” Sarmiento says. Fear now appears to be the driving force in Mexican politics, and it is working to the adI vantage of the PRI. It is helping voters forget their problems, and answering the question posed by Federico Estévez, an expert on Mexican politics at the Autonomous Technological Institute in Mexico City: “In the middle of a recession and with growing inequality and corruption, how can there be a PRI lead?” In the closing weeks of the campaign, the ¡ruling party has tried to build on the apprehension with two new ad campaigns. One, used for bumper stickers and street banners, announces with no subtlety at all that a vote for Zedillo is a “vote for peace.” The other, on television, squeezed among the steamy soap operas, reminds Mexicans that the opposition parties have no experience in governing. It is a campaign that evidently strikes a chord. “The PRI will win because people

know the PRI,” says a round-faced, cheerful Mexico City man named José Martes. “Cárdenas, no one knows. The PAN, no one knows.” He waves his hand dismissively. In fact, the PAN, cut from the mould of a European Christian Democratic party and making its strongest showing ever, has also made a nod to voter anxiety. It abandoned a harderedged but powerful slogan calling for a “Mexico without lies” for one that proclaims the party as “the only safe change.”

The mood of unease created by the Zapatista revolt in Chiapas in January and the assassination of Colosio in March has rebounded hardest against Cárdenas. He and his supporters complain of cozy secret deals between the PRI and the PAN and make claims about dirty tricks and outright intimidation and violence at the hands of the PRI, including what they say was the attempted assassination of a PRD candidate in Chiapas, injured when the car he was riding in was hit by a tanker truck. “We’ve seen a very dirty process,” Cárdenas told Maclean’s. But political expert Estévez says the likely defeat of the PRD will have little to do with fraud. “They are going to lose, and they are going to lose big because of the security problems this year, starting with Chiapas,” he said, arguing

that right-wing parties are the usual winners when law and order becomes an election issue. “All of that turbulence has caused the electorate to abandon the left.”

Cárdenas has certainly not helped himself by making a summer campaign trip to the Lacandon jungle to meet Subcommandante Marcos, the Zapatista guerrilla leader. The PRD was also the only party to officially take part in a Zapatista-sponsored convention last week that demanded an end to PRI rule and a new constitution. And Cárdenas is holding out the possibility that he will orchestrate a campaign of post-electoral street protests if he detects signs of fraud behind a PRI victory. As his campaign bus takes him from one working-class neighborhood to another on the mountainside fringes of Mexico City, Cárdenas says the people are ready to join what he promises will be a nonviolent protest: “I would say, not only ready, but willing. They are fed up.” That pledge, and the red flags showing clenched fists that fly at Cárdenas rallies, serve only to drive more middle-class voters away, says political consultant Luis Medina Peña, an academic and former diplomat who has close ties to the PRI. “Cárdenas has made many mistakes.”

The three main candidates have markedly different campaigning styles. Cárdenas is a sad-faced man with a serious manner and a plodding but sincere style. Zedillo looks like the president of a high-school math club beamed down without warning to the political stage. While he has improved his delivery, he sometimes loses his rhythm and gets his audience to applaud just before he delivers his big line. And when Zedillo does get it right, he is noticeably pleased with himself. The champion campaigner is PAN’s Fernández, an energetic and tactile man with a wiry beard and an ever-present cigar, who has succeeded in making his party a clear alternative to the PRI.

On a recent trip to Poza Rica, an oil town northeast of Mexico City near the gulf coast, he promised that a PAN government would never privatize the giant PEMEX oil monopoly and said that too many of the benefits from the oilfields end up in the hands of friends of the ruling party.

Such remarks won favor in a town where oil pumps sit alongside school soccer fields, and a faint smell of oil hangs in the tropical air. The area has the reputation as a PRI stronghold, but Fernández managed to attract 2,000 people to the main square, including street vendors hawking tortilla soup and boiled corn. Remarks over, cigar in hand, he then jumped from the platform into the crowd, enjoying every back slap and handshake.

That easy manner, his lawyer’s delivery and evident political skills made Fernández the clear victor in Mexico’s first-ever televised leaders debate, itself yet another sign of increasing political liberties. In the wake of the May 12 debate, polls began to show a diminishing PRI lead. Some surveys actually suggested that Mexico was ready to turn its back on the PRI after 65 years. Two things then happened, says pollster Licona. People began to contemplate life under new management and got nervous. And for the first time in its history, the PRI got scared. It also helped that for some inexplicable reason, Fernández took six days off at the height of the campaign. “Those six days for me were an eternity,” says PAN secretary general Felipe Calderón Hinojosa.

The PRI’s advantages are lengthy—and legal. Over the years, it has built up a powerful political machine. That power is evident in the party’s Mexico City headquarters. While the PAN has a small office building in the south end of the capital, the PRI has what amounts to a campus, a full square block on the northern edge of the business district— containing an office tower topped with a giant Zedillo billboard, two smaller office build-

ings and an auditorium that would make any midsize Canadian city proud—all surrounded with a high steel security fence. Of the three major parties, only the PRI will be able to muster sufficient manpower to provide scrutineers at all of the approximately 96,000 polling places.

The party is everywhere. In northern Mexico, where the PAN has as much of a stronghold as it has anywhere, the PRI is able to mount displays of political muscle like the crowd that met Zedillo in Chihuahua. In the

‘The media in Mexico are not always on the side of truth’ . rural south, it is the party to beat. Among the urban and rural poor, where Cárdenas gets considerable support, it is the PRI that is the chief antagonist. Wherever there are plastic banners for an opposition candidate, strung like flags at a used car lot above the street, there will be an equal number for Zedillo. In the cities, where the opposition is strongest, the PRI is the chief rival.

Alone among Mexican parties, only the PRI will be able to spend to the limit of $55 million on campaign expenses. The PAN will spend as much as $6 million, the PRD only a third of that. Sergio Aguayo, a leader of Alianza Cívica, Mexico’s largest election-monitoring group, says there is a suggestion that the PRI will spend even more than allowed. But he cannot prove it because demands for independent audits of party financing have been rejected by the Salinas government. Aguayo also says, choosing his words with great care, that there is a “widespread belief, true or not,” that the PRI is using government money for its campaign. What is certain is that the government—like governments everywhere—has pork-barrel programs that can only help the reputation of the ruling party among those in receipt of state funds. One program that the

opposition has cried foul the loudest about is Procampo, an agricultural support scheme set up last autumn that makes direct payments to farmers. Procampo has a 1994 budget of $4.7 million. The opposition contends that much of that money is being spent in the months preceding the election.

The PRI also has a huge media advantage. Its financial clout allows it to own the airwaves for paid advertisements. A study by Alianza Cívica showed that in one seven-day period in July on both major channels, only the PRI had

any spots at all. Aguayo also says that while there has been improvement, there is some bias in news reporting that sees Zedillo get the most and best coverage. “The media in Mexico,” says PAN’s Fernández, “they are not always on the side of truth. There is a great manipulation of information.”

While the PRI is promising that this time the elections will be clean, many of the party’s critics say its power brokers may just cheat out of habit in what would amount to “penny-ante fraud” in the words of political expert Estéves. Election reforms have made 1988-style vote-rigging next to impossible, according to Canadian Ambassador David Winfield, who adds that he is “hopeful” that the election will be conducted fairly. “Mexico is trying hard,” he says. Brian Stevenson, a colleague of Estéves and a Mexican-Canadian, says the party does not really have to bend the rules, given its advantage in organization and a divided opposition. “The real question is not whether the PRI will cheat but whether it will have to,” he says.

The economic reforms sponsored by Salinas during his six-year term as president— free trade and large-scale privatizations— have hit Mexico hard. And if those adjustments were not difficult enough, then came a recession that is officially over but does not feel like it to many Mexicans. “The recession and the adjustments in Canada were a child’s picnic compared with what happened here,” says Douglas Clark, president of the Canada-Mexico Chamber of Commerce and director general of Northern Telecom’s Mexican subsidiary.

The middle class has been particularly squeezed by the reforms. And many, like the Navarrete family in the Mexico City suburb of Coyoacán, where 16th-century Spaniard Hernán Cortés set up housekeeping after the conquest, will be casting their lot with the opposition. With their own house (small by Canadian suburban standards) set back from the street, the Navarretes enjoy a quality of life that would be the envy of the 40 million Mexicans—mostly campesinos—who live in poverty. All their five children have been able to attend U.S. universities for at least one year, a fact they take great pride in. Taide, 62, the family matriarch, is niece to Carlos Pellicer, a well-known Mexican poet, and she runs a small travel agency. Her husband, Umberto, 69, is an engineer.

The house, with its interior walls of white stucco, is decorated with paintings and statuary by their artistic son Alfredo, who joins his parents one day for a midday meal of chicken with molé sauce and talk about politics. Alfredo, a bookseller, says that he has lost 80 per

cent of his income because of free trade and sharp competition from American publishers. The recession has also cut the income he receives from selling his paintings. “There is no money for art,” he says.

And while wages have fallen or remained steady, prices have gone up. “Every day, every day, every day,” Taide says with sad resignation. “The poor stayed poor and the

Amid a rash of turmoil, fear now appears to be the driving force in Mexican politics

middle class became poor,” Alfredo adds, like many, he and his father sourly note that Mexico now has 24 billionaires compared with two when Salinas took office in 1988. And like most Mexicans, they complain about corruption. Even to get a bank loan requires a palm to be greased. “The corruption is in the body of the system,” Umberto says. The whole family is for Cárdenas, but they make two telling points that explain how the

PRI can be poised for victory. The economic reforms imposed by Salinas may hurt now but will leave the country better off in the long run, they agree. And they credit the PRI with maintaining social peace.

Despite what some foreign critics may think, Salinas remains a plus for the PRI. And it is instructive that not even Cárdenas wants to undo the outgoing president’s economic reforms. Support for Salinas has fallen since the Chiapas revolt and the murder of Colosio, but El Financiero columnist Sarmiento says that a July poll gave the president a still-impressive approval rating of 56 per cent. People are siding with the PRI as much because of Salinas as because of Zedillo, says pollster Licona.

For 65 years, Mexico has been a democracy in name only. But if the PRI can live up to its promises to keep the election relatively honest, free of what political expert Estéves calls the “centrally imposed fraud” of past elections, the country stands a chance to shuck off the raiments of its authoritarian past, without widespread violence. “Mexico is not a banana republic,” says Canadian businessman Clark. But even domestic critics of the regime, like Mexico City councillor Demetrio Sodi de la Tijere, who broke with the PRI this year and now supports Cárdenas, are optimistic. “The grand wisdom of Mexico is that at the moment that the country needs some changes, some dialogue, we always do it,” says Sodi. That is again Mexico’s testa