The National Catholic Review

In May and June, with the Bush versus Gore contest possibly a yawn, political buffs can turn south for a real horse race. This is a new and exciting picture for Mexicoa field of six running for the presidency, three of them with a good chance: Francisco Labastida for the Revolutionary Institutional Party (PRI), Vicente Fox for the Party of National Action (PAN) and Cuahtemoc Cardenas for the Party of Democratic Revolution (PRD).

The PRI, which began 70 years ago with the goal of consolidating the Mexican Revolution and guaranteeing that nothing so bloody happened again, has held all the reins tightly, but in recent decades it has had to allow political opposition some room. The PAN, a northern-based party with a middle-class cadre (its leader now describes it as "left-center"), has worked its way into major governorships, including those of Jalisco, Guanajuato and Baja California Norte. The PRD, a populist splinter movement from the PRI led by Cardenas, son of the last century’s most admired president, arose quickly to take on Carlos Salinas for the top office in 1988, which it lost narrowly and perhaps due to dirty tricks.

Post-election pressures after 1988 put the election process into impartial hands, the Federal Election Institute (IFE). This year the PRI made another concession by agreeing to scrap the dedazo, the privilege of the sitting president to "finger" his successor. Labastida, Secretary of Governance (a ministry of internal affairs and political oversight over municipalities and states), was the clear choice of President Ernesto Zedillo; the PRI nonetheless staged a countrywide primary in which three major figures stood up against him. Labastida won fair and square.

Francisco Labastida is an insider, able to deal with all the players, including the Catholic Church, in a complicated and often murky scene. He pronounces himself a good friend of Luis Donaldo Colosio, the PRI candidate who in 1994 was shot in Tijuana during a campaign appearance and is now held up as an apostle of social change. Labastida in fact served actively in the economic planning of the last three presidents and now makes a strong claim to credit for Mexico’s macroeconomic healthreduction of the national debt to $2 billion, 1 percent budget deficit, $30 billion of reserves, 4.5 percent growth of G.N.P. this year.

The PRI administration and its recent history is, however, pocked with scandalsprivatization of banks by way of ample public loans to the buyers, an antidrug czar who was found to be in cahoots with drug lords, a secretary of tourism who is charged with making $40 million disappear (presumably into PRI election coffers). Forbes magazine listed more than 20 Mexicans among the world’s 100 richest people, while their countrymen stagger in poverty. A recent survey has estimated that, among Mexico’s 95 million people, 75 million are in poverty, two thirds of that number in extreme poverty. The microeconomics, in other words, is dismal, with small and middle-sized business languishing, the minimum wage laughable, the interest sky-high for bank loans and the rural poor still flooding to the cities for scarce employment and not much of a safety net.

Into this vacuum has poured all the drugs and drug money that now raise Mexico to parity with Colombia. Big-city violence and insecurity are daily front-page news. So the citizens, though inured to campaign rhetoric and used to muting their expectations, could not be more aware of the stakes in the sexennial election. More than the presidency (to be decided by a simple majority vote nationwide) is at issue. Deputies and senators to the national Congress have to run every three years, so they too are stumping.

Enter the candidate on the white horse, Vicente Fox, governor of Guanajuato State. Even on foot and minus the rancher’s hat, Fox can be seen towering by a head above every crowd. He exudes a kind of rough energy, weighing in with blunt attacks on the PRI. He calls for and promises a government that will render accounts, as well as foster development in what he calls "these deserts of human deprivation" and not just incidentally raise the economic growth to 7 percent. In a young nation, half of whom are below the age of 19, he promises to raise spending for education from 5 to 8 percent of the budget. Labastida too has elaborated plans for education, which in Baja California stands at an average of eight years but in Chiapas does not exceed three. Education for the present millennium is a long way off.

In Chiapas, people say, the PRI has only militarized and polarized things; Labastida is not likely to change that. The southern states as a block, in their desperation, are spawning guerrilla movements. The PRD, for its part, has its base in the south, where Cardenas was once governor of Guerero. Cardenas, though, is running behind. He lost his right-hand man in the PRD, Porfirio Muñoz Ledo, now a rival candidate; his image, though thoughtful, is undynamic (a recent cartoon in La Jornada, a liberal newspaper, showed him putting babies to sleep); and his performance as head of government in Mexico City, the urban monster, left people unimpressed.

Cardenas and the PRD are not to be underrated, but Vicente Fox offers the real hope of alternanciagovernmental change or alternation in power. People sigh for alternancia. The Mexican Episcopal Conference, in a pastoral letter of March 25, explicitly called for it, which is about as blunt as the church in Mexico can get. Alternancia will be the out-front issue on July 2, when people go to the polls. But in the back of many minds are serious doubts about the PAN and Vicente Fox. If elected, will he just go along with the maquiladoras on the frontier in their suppression of organizing among workers, which the PAN has abetted in Baja California? Will he give real credit and effective help to poor farmers, as he claims to have done in Guanajuatoor end up favoring agribusiness export, as the PRI has done? Can he clean the Augean stables?

James S. Torrens, S.J., is a professor of English at Universidad Iberoamericana Noroeste in Tijuana, Mexico.