Mexicans won't choose the successor to President Ernesto Zedillo for another year. Yet analysts treated the July 4 gubernatorial elections in Mexico state and Nayarit as a "barometer" of the political climate for the upcoming presidential sweepstakes, even as major parties took advantage of the contests to try out issues, slogans, and strategies.
Low turnout aside, leaders of Mr. Zedillo's Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) beamed over the unity and hard work that produced the victory of its standard bearer in Mexico state, Arturo Montiel.
Curling around three-fourths of Mexico City, the state has 7.3 million voters - almost 13 percent of the national total. It is also a microcosm of the nation, with affluent middle-class suburbs, debris-laden shanty towns, blue-collar neighborhoods, industrial corridors, rural zones, and enclaves of indigenous people.
The state boasts three competitive parties, as evidenced by the once-omnipotent PRI's 41 percent victory over Naucalpan Mayor Jos Luis Durn, nominee of the center-right National Action Party (PAN) nominee who garnered 34 percent - with Higinio Martnez of the leftist-nationalist Democratic Revolutionary Party (PDR) obtaining 21 percent of the vote.
The prista most encouraged by the outcome is former government secretary Francisco Labastida, who will face off against three other hopefuls in the party's November 7 presidential primary.
Like Montiel, Labastida is a handsome PRI establishment figure, with close ties to well-heeled businessmen, and a low-key style on the hustings.
Mr. Martnez's weak finish further damaged the presidential prospects of the PRD's Cuauhtmoc Crdenas, whose klutzy performance as Mexico City mayor cost his party votes in neighboring Mexico state. The vote left the PAN's Vicente Fox, governor of Guanajuato, as the strongest opposition presidential aspirant.
All parties paid particular attention to an 11th hour commercial that may have propelled Montiel past Durn. In the capital and nearby megacities, the breakdown of public safety tops the list of citizen nightmares.
In the run-up to the election, the Naucalpan police - whom Mayor Durn had praised as the nation's "best" - admitted their involvement in the killing of a city worker. Not only did Montiel flog Durn for lousy judgment, but the PRI candidate blitzed the airwaves with spots averring that ratas - rats, or criminals - did not merit human-rights protection. These demagogic ads, reminiscent of George Bush's Willie Horton diatribes in 1988, apparently resonated with average folks fed up with soaring rates of muggings, robberies, and assaults.
Montiel's success with the law-and-order card will make crime a major campaign issue, possibly accelerating deployment of a new federal police force.
Antonio Echevarra, the candidate of a four-party "Alliance for Change" spearheaded by the PAN and PRD, captured the governorship from the PRI in Nayarit, a poor agricultural state on the Pacific Gulf. The emphatic outcome - 52 percent to 45 percent - shows the PRI's vulnerability in a two-way confrontation.
The coalition's triumph revives discussions of a joint PAN-PRD presidential nominee. But a unity ticket remains a pipe dream because neither Fox, a high-flyer in opinion surveys, nor Crdenas, who believes himself ordained to head the nation, will step aside for the other.
Both the PAN and PRD gripe about the presence of scattered foul play and irregularities. They excoriated the incumbent PRI governor for media manipulation, inaugurating schools, clinics, and other popular projects to curry favor for his party, and campaigning for his heir-apparent in violation of election law.
Even if this grousing doesn't escalate into demonstrations, marches, and sit-ins, PRI officials must crack down on such traditional hijinks, lest they undermine the credibility of Zedillo's notable democratizing reforms and, much worse, the legitimacy of the November PRI internal primary and the July 2000 balloting for Mexico's next chief executive.
*George W. Grayson, who teaches government at the College of William & Mary, in Va., was in Mexico during the July 4 elections.