MEXICO CITY, JULY 4 — As preliminary results from Mexico‘s most hotly contested presidential election ever began to roll in Sunday evening, July 2, thousands of railroad workers and their families gathered in the giant parking lot of the long-ruling (71 years) Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) bunker in northern Mexico City. With rank-and-file PRIstas, one never knows how much of an outburst of support is sincere, and how much bought and paid for, but those gathered were clearly poised to cheer home yet another victory. Instead, they gradually fell into a sullen silence, their noisemakers clacked to a dead stop, and the truculent trumpet blasts were shushed.

By 9 p.m., a dark rain cloud blotted out the sky over this teeming capital and a chill, dank wind raked the PRI compound, presaging electoral doom. By 11, the exit polls and the quick counts — salient features of the most U.S.-like election in Mexican history — signaled that it was all over. With a double-digit lead, rightist Vicente Fox had become the first opposition candidate to win the presidency of Mexico since the birth of the PRI seven decades ago.

Inside an auditorium named for the stern general who founded the state party in 1928, PRI leaders wept openly as outgoing president Ernesto Zedillo (on the big screen) and his hand-picked successor Francisco Labastida conceded the death of one of the longest-lived political dynasties in the known universe.

In the parking lot, the sullen railroad men and the lottery-ticket hawkers and the PRI ambulantes (street venders) folded up their banners and trudged off into the uncertain night. The mariachis packed away their instruments, the stage was torn apart, and the sound system that was to have brought the PRI’s ”Fiesta of Triumph“ to the nation was dismantled. After midnight, only the garbage flapping in the wind remained — the garbage, and a strobe light someone had forgotten to unplug, sweeping the abandoned parking lot from one dark corner to the next, searching for survivors.

The July 2 Mexican election was supposed to have been a dead heat between Labastida and Fox — virtually every poll, an infant science here, indicated that the race was headed into the twilight zone. But those Mexicans who went to bed Sunday night, or early Monday morning in some cases, did so with Fox holding a seemingly insurmountable lead. Of course, a fraud-tainted PRI resurgence when no one was watching was Fox‘s worst nightmare, but by mid-morning Monday, the historic victory was holding fast. Preliminary results give Fox 43 percent, with Labastida trailing at 36 percent. The third-place finisher was Cuauhtemoc Cardenas, longtime leader of the left-center Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), with 17 percent.

Experts scurried to explain their errant prognostications, which had asserted that the race would be too close to call. In the end, it became clear that the pollsters had failed to take into account how cautious 71 years of authoritarian, one-party tyranny had made Mexico’s electorate. Many had just lied to their inquisitors, and those 10 percent to 19 percent of voters designated ”undecided“ were very decided all the time — they just didn‘t want to say it out loud.

Fox’s victory was confected from a potpourri of constituencies, all of which portend a shift to the right at the top of the Mexican ladder. Warm support from big-business circles swelled Fox‘s campaign coffers, and he will gladly reciprocate — the one-time head of Coca-Cola in Mexico and Central America is as committed a globalizer as his predecessor Zedillo. Fox and his National Action Party (PAN) will enthusiastically spur the dog-eat-dog, neo-liberal bent of an economy that has made a few Mexicans very rich and cast 26 million more into extreme poverty.

In addition to the bankers and the industrialists, Vicente Fox appears to have overwhelmingly captured Mexico’s Catholic vote. Wrapping himself in the banner of the Virgin of Guadalupe, the nation‘s most holy icon, and condemning abortion as ”murder,“ the PANista earned the sub rosa support of the conservative hierarchy.

On the other side of the political ledger, Fox attracted several prominent associates of the PRD and, most probably, a measure of support from rank-and- file PRDistas themselves, who, in the alleged privacy of the voting booth, marked their ballots for the PANista. Despite political beliefs directly at odds with those espoused by Fox, they were apparently willing to do almost anything to dump the PRI.

Even with the monumental victory (43 percent of 38 million votes cast with 95 percent of the precincts counted), Fox’s triumph is not exactly unconditional. During the boisterous post-election rally under the gilded Angel of Independence on a downtown boulevard here, Fox was warned by the huge throng of celebrants ”not to fail us.“

”We will obligate him to govern well,“ growled Alfonso Munoz, an inner-city newspaper vendor.

The dimensions of the Fox victory are even more impressive because he beat the most egregious and well-oiled PRI vote-buying machine this reporter has experienced in four presidential elections in Mexico. Reports of shenanigans emerged right up until the eve of the balloting, which was when the PRI governor of Michoacan was audited on tape, purportedly plotting the distribution of US$80 million in budgeted state moneys to potential voters. This scene and various reports of coercion and bribery, all of it attributed to the no-longer-ruling party, made headlines every day.

Election Day unfolded in relative tranquillity with only scattered incidents of violence reported around the country. The autonomous Federal Electoral Institute (IFE) provided a measure of integrity to the election that previous campaigns had never had. But although the IFE helped insure fraud-free voting at the ballot box itself, it had no control over the wholesale buying of votes by the PRI in advance of the election.

Still, Vicente Fox obliterated the PRI. His big numbers also seem to spell the end of the electoral line for longtime left-leader Cuauhtemoc Cardenas, whose PRD captured just 17 percent of the popular vote, about the same as what Cardenas took home in his failed 1994 bid for the presidency. Cardenas supporters and many observers will always believe that, in 1988, Cardenas outpolled the PRI presidential candidate, but was denied victory because of the PRI-controlled vote count.

A three-time reject for the top job, Cardenas will be 73 by the time the next presidential race comes around in 2006. Waiting in the wings is his much younger protege Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, who handily won the Mexico City mayoralty on July 2. Lopez Obrador‘s victory renewed the PRD mandate in the Western Hemisphere’s largest city, a mandate that began in 1997 with a Cardenas mayoral landslide.

At the congressional level, Fox‘s coattails were broad enough to win the new president a short legislative majority. Preliminary results give the PAN a slight (224-209) advantage over the PRI in the lower house, with the PRD garnering just 60 seats. Over on the senate side, at this writing, the PRI holds a six-vote edge over the PAN, a balance which will give the PRD, with its 16 votes, some needed bargaining power.

An alliance between the PRI and Cardenas’ party against what Cardenas labels the ”fascist“ Fox cannot be discounted. On election night, in the desolate PRI parking lot, disaffected Institutional militants argued for a return to the social left-center roots of the once-ruling party, a Cardenas goal when he was still a member of the PRI.

Although the Mexican government‘s economic policies will not budge from PRI standards, Fox’s band of victory will allow him to move on widespread corruption. The indictment of high-profile PRI officials is a seemingly inevitable scenario — despite the new president‘s election-night promise that he will not conduct a witch-hunt. Of course, Fox is keenly aware that corruption is so ingrained in the fabric of Mexican political life that trying to clean house could bring down the house itself, and that a sort of unstated amnesty could prevail.

Mexico’s first opposition president also will have a golden opportunity to fix other long-standing social problems, such as the still-simmering conflict with the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) in Chiapas. Like all Mexicans, the Zapatistas have only known PRI governments, and their disposition toward a Fox presidency is uncharted ground — several years ago, the EZLN‘s charismatic spokesperson Subcomandante Marcos characterized Fox as ”a consequent politician.“

One scenario being discussed here would have Vicente Fox appoint Cardenas as a peace ambassador to Chiapas — the former left candidate supports military withdrawal from the conflict zone and congressional passage of a law that would grant Mexico’s 56 indigenous peoples limited autonomy. Another scenario, however, has the military, to which Fox has no ties, seeking to define its influence in the new regime by flexing its muscle in Chiapas.

Perhaps the most exhilarating feature of the Fox victory is that it offers an unprecedented panoply of scenarios for a Mexico that changed irrevocably on July 2, a change that did not end Sunday but rather opens the door to the possibility of much deeper change ahead.

”When I woke up this morning,“ testified waiter Armando Penalosa, serving morning-after coffee at La Blanca restaurant in the city‘s old quarter, ”I felt like a big weight had been lifted from my chest.“

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