Recession, rebellion, assassination, stark poverty. In most countries, such a record would hardly foreshadow electoral success. So perhaps the only way to explain the victory of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) in Mexico’s presidential and congressional elections last week is to recall a lunchtime staple of the tiny, open-fronted loncherias that crowd the downtown streets of Mexico City. Along with tortilla soup and tacos come bowls of noodles or rice that the Mexicans cheerily call sopa seca, or dry soup. In a country of dry soup and institutional revolutions, maybe anything is possible, even a vote for change that re-elects the incumbents.
To the surprise of almost no one, except perhaps the opposition, Ernesto Zedillo Ponce de León, a former budget director and education minister in the outgoing government and a technocrat to the core, will become Mexico’s next president on Dec. 1, replacing Carlos Salinas de Gortari. It will be the 12th consecutive six-year term since 1929 for the PRI—which has held power longer than any other existing party in the modem era. A few things made the victory in the Aug. 21 election even sweeter than extending the streak. First, of course, was the magnitude of the win. With 97 per cent of the ballots counted late last week, Zedillo had just a shade under 49
per cent of the vote, easily outdistancing Diego Fernández de Cevallos of the centre-right National Action Party (PAN), with 26 per cent, and Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas Solórzano of the leftist Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD) with 16 per cent. The PRI is also assured of a powerful majority in the 500-seat Chamber of Deputies and the 128seat Senate. But best of all for the party was that it had played, and won, under new election mies that made the campaign the most competitive ever. In his victory speech, Zedillo was exultant: “The most important victory was for democracy in Mexico.”
While questions remained about the election’s fairness, most observers agreed that the results reflected the Mexican public’s choice. Brian Stevenson, a Canadian studies professor in Mexico City, said that people were going about on election day proudly showing off indelible ink stains on their thumbs, marked at polling stations as a sign of having voted. “People really felt that their vote was going to count this time,” Stevenson said. ‘There was a real sense of civic pride.” Former Conservative prime minister Joe Clark was one of 51 official Canadian observers—styled “visitors” to avoid offending Mexican sensibilities of infringed sovereignty—who watched the vote. “I think they were reasonably fair elections,” Clark said. “In fact, from what I saw, quite fair elections.” Christine Stewart, the junior minister for Latin America and Africa, met late last week with representatives of the observer teams and later told Maclean’s that the Canadian government was satisfied that Zedillo had won legitimately. “It was not an election without glitches, but it is a distinct improvement over the last election,” she said. “The will of the people was expressed.”
Not everyone saw it that way. Cárdenas, the standard-bearer of the left and son of a former populist PRI president, cried foul right up to election day—and after. “A colossal fraud has been committed,” the always sadfaced Cárdenas told a rally the day after the vote in Mexico City’s historic central plaza, the Zócalo. (Many of his countrymen believe that Cárdenas was cheated out of the presidency in 1988 by overwhelming electoral fraud.) And as he called for nationwide protests, he told supporters that the country would never again accept six years of illegitimate government. Declared Cárdenas: “The struggle, my comrades, is simply beginning.” In the poor southern state of Chiapas, near the Guatemalan border, the struggle appeared to be well under way—even
though Zapatista rebels, who led an armed peasant uprising in January, maintained a tense but tottering peace. Chiapas was alone among Mexico’s 31 states in holding concurrent elections for governor. And while PRI candidate Eduardo Robledo Rincón was well ahead in the official count, the PRD opposition declared its nominee, Amado Avendaño, the winner. “Robledo Rincón is not going to govern Chiapas,” said Alejandro Mosqueda, a community worker with ties to the rebels in San Cristóbal de las Casas, a town of colonial grace in the heart of Zapatista territory. ‘The people won’t allow it.” Police in riot gear had been guarding the city hall in San Cristóbal, fearing an attempted takeover as Mosqueda warned of occupations, mass protest and highway blockades. Avendaño’s wife, Concepción Villafuerte, herself a noted activist, even threatened that her husband would set up a parallel government. “We plan to take power,” she declared.
Avendaño had spent the final weeks of the campaign in a hospital bed, recovering from serious internal injuries suffered in a mysterious car accident that supporters immediately blamed on the PRI. The dirty tricks continued right through election day, his partisans said, listing such irregularities as promises of free gasoline and new stoves in exchange for PRI votes. “People are very angry,” Mosqueda said. ‘They are saying, ‘In our community we all voted for the PRD, but on television, they are saying the PRI has won.’ ”
The PRI has grown accustomed to winning in Chiapas, and winning big. In 1988, the state gave an improbably generous 89 per cent of its votes to Salinas, and in the district of Comitán, near the Guatemalan border, 97.7 per cent of the vote went PRI. There, as in other parts of the country, the most frequent criticisms last week were that the PRI had far outspent its rivals, benefited from biased news media, and attempted to influence the outcome with a fountain of government handouts and grants. In Chiapas alone this year, the government spent about $1.2 billion on road construction, farm aid and other projects, far more than in previous years.
One Canadian election observer in Chiapas last week echoed that view. Mary Hannaburg, a member of the Quebec Native Women’s Association, witnessed the voting in the town of Simojovel, north of San Cristóbal, and related that a man who identified himself only as “a concerned citizen” walked into the polling station about two hours before the 6 p.m. closing time and began to
count the ballots. As for the staff, they had been hired off the street the night before and allowed the man to do as he wanted, leaving that poll’s results highly suspect. Hannaburg said that when she later complained about irregularities to the Federal Electoral Institute, a local representative told her that he was powerless to do anything.
But in the nearby town of Ocosingo, Ed Broadbent, former leader of the New Democratic Party and now president of the government-funded Montreal-based Centre for Human Rights and Democratic Development, said that the vote was not seriously flawed. “The general view was that it was dysfunctional but it worked,” he said. Two of the most common problems in Chiapas and across the country were delays in opening the polls and a shortage of special ballots for people voting away from home. Ironically, all parties had agreed to restrict the number of such ballots because of opposition fears that the PRI would use them to stuff ballot boxes.
While Cárdenas and Avendaño refused to accept the election result, crucial and prompt support for its legitimacy came from Fernández of PAN, which cemented its role as the official opposition with a strong showing not only in the presidential race but in the congressional races. A charismatic, cigar-smoking lawyer, Fernández had performed impressively in what was Mexico’s first televised leaders’ debate, in May. But by election day, memories of that event had faded, and the PRI had succeeded in fine-tuning its well-financed political machine. With official results mirroring his own party’s estimate, Fernández advised his followers to accept the defeat.
Fernández also issued a plea for calm and social peace, which was just what many Mexicans wanted to hear after last January’s Zapatista revolt and the March assassination of Luis Donaldo Colosio, Zedillo’s predecessor as PRI candidate. “People are nervous right now,” said Margarita Sales, a Mexico City translator attending a Cárdenas protest rally. “Revolution right now would be madness.”
That anxiety, a fear of renewed violence in a country that still recalls the bloody horrors of its 1910 revolution, was a crucial element in the vote and worked to the advantage of the PRI, which shamelessly capitalized on it. In the end, Mexicans wanted change and believed Zedillo when he said he would give it to them in measured doses, with more emphasis on social spending and job creation, further democratic reforms and a crackdown against police corruption—but with no fundamental upheavals that would turn back the free-market economic reforms spearheaded by Salinas. “The Mexican electorate voted for slow and steady change,” said Mexico City political scientist Federico Estéves. “That’s what they’re going to get.”
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.