TEMOAYA, MEXICO — As the tightest presidential election in Mexican history hits the homestretch for July 2, the front-runners are beating the bushes for every vote they can get. The nation’s 10 million to 20 million Indians (depending upon whose numbers are accepted) — a constituency ordinarily ignored when it comes to matters of national import — are suddenly targets of partisan pursuit.

Last week, Francisco Labastida, the candidate of the long-ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), rented 1,000 buses to truck 20,000 Indians up to the Otomi Ceremonial Center, a piney mountaintop in Mexico state that looks more like a UFO landing pad than powwow ground (James Bond movies are filmed here). Designated “Big Brother” (“Hermano Mayor”) by the “Otomis,” Labastida launched into a spiel that promised little more than increased subsidies for the poor under the Progresa program. Labastida studiously avoided the word autonomy, which is advocated by radical Indians, led by the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN).

But whatever Labastida said would probably have been okay with the Indians bused in from around the country — the ruling party, through pork-barrel programs like Progresa, dominates the Indian vote. In the 1994 presidential race, PRI captured 57 percent of all majority Indian municipalities.

On the same day that Labastida was “inviting” his Indians to once again vote for the PRI, his key rival, Vicente Fox of the rightist National Action Party (PAN) — with whom he is in a dead heat, according to reliable polls — convened his own gathering catering to indigenous voters. Fox invited representatives of Mexico‘s 56 distinct Indian peoples to a forum at the glitzy Fiesta Americana Hotel in the capital. Only 12 showed up, sending Fox the unmistakable message that his paternalistic and racially tinged style was not appreciated.

If elected, Fox has promised to create an office of Indian concern which “will be right next to mine” and will provide what he says every Indian desires — a “tele” (television set), a “Vocho” (Volkswagen bug) and a “changaro” (storefront). Such past pronouncements have not gone over well. Nor has Fox’s boast that he can settle the Chiapas conflict “within 15 minutes.” The “Indian Question” (Indians call it the “Mestizo Question” because that‘s who asks it) is deeply bound up with the Zapatista rebellion in Chiapas.

At the Fiesta Americana, Fox tried a more serious approach. He pledged, for the first time, to respect the San Andres accords on Indian rights and culture, which would guarantee limited autonomy for all of Mexico’s Indians. The accords were signed in 1996 by the Zapatista Army of National Liberation and President Ernesto Zedillo‘s personal representatives, but later vetoed by Zedillo. Fox promised to send the accords on to Congress “on the first day I take office.”

But Fox’s late endorsement of the San Andres accords failed to convince Magda Gomez, one-time legal director of the government‘s National Indigenous Institute and now a vocal booster of the EZLN: “Fox is an opportunist,” she said. “Until now, there has been no place in his marketing schemes for the Indians.”

In reality, the efforts to court the Indian vote — at least that of the Zapatistas — are probably futile. The Zapatistas chronically mistrust the political parties as non-representative and reject partisan elections, which they consider a divisive intervention in Indian communities. Rather, rebel autonomous municipalities vote by traditional customs in community assemblies in which those selected pledge “mandar obedeciendo,” i.e., “to govern by obeying the will of the people,” a formula the Zapatistas would like to see applied to national politics.

In 1994, the year the rebels went public and also a presidential election year, the Zapatistas endorsed a candidate running for governor on the ticket of the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), the third major political party and the one that leans most to the left. But when widespread fraud apparently deprived its candidate of victory, the EZLN soured on the electoral process and launched a military offensive that Zedillo still blames for causing the collapse of the peso. By 1995, the rebels had declared a number of municipalities autonomous and refused to participate in official paper-ballot elections. During 1997 federal midterm balloting, Zapatistas, enraged by Zedillo’s refusal to implement the Indian Rights law accorded at San Andres, burned ballot boxes and chased off election officials.

Next week‘s elections are viewed by rebel leaders as a threat to their physical integrity. Whoever wins, they conclude, will be bad for the health of their movement. Labastida, the ruling-party candidate, is a known commodity. As interior secretary appointed by Zedillo to whitewash the massacre of 46 Indians at Acteal, he torpedoed the San Andres accords (“laws weren’t made in the jungle”); killed off the CONAI, the mediating body led by retired San Cristobal de las Casas bishop Samuel Ruiz; allowed the governor of the state at the time of the massacre to escape prosecution (Julio Ruiz Ferro was promoted to the Mexican embassy in Washington); and encouraged his replacement, Roberto Albores, to dismantle Zapatista autonomous municipalities at gunpoint, killing 10 and taking hundreds prisoner.

According to EZLN thinking, a Labastida victory will allow Zedillo enough political space to both take out an Indian guerrilla that has taunted him every day of his six-year term in office, and eliminate future problems for his handpicked successor. On June 2, Subcomandante Marcos, the Zapatistas‘ enigmatic spokesman, urged Mexican and international civil society to halt the impending attack, much as civil society had stopped the military’s advance six years previous in January 1994. The Zapatista Army of National Liberation has been placed on red alert in preparation for a post-electoral military offensive.

A July 2 victory by Vicente Fox could trigger an equally dangerous scenario. The rule of thumb for presidential-military relations is that the loyalty of the president to the generals is as important as the generals‘ loyalty to the president, and because Fox has no ties within the military hierarchy, the army will quickly define its influence in the new regime by flexing its muscle. In Mexico 2000, that muscle is flexed in Chiapas. According to Subcomandante Marcos, the timetable for attack is already fixed — if the PRI senses that it will lose July 2, an offensive could begin before Election Day.

There is another option. Long-shot candidate Cuauhtemoc Cardenas, founder of the PRD, has long supported the San Andres accords and the concept of indigenous autonomy. Cuauhtemoc, the bearer of the name of the last Aztec emperor, is the only candidate in the race with an indigenous heritage. (Purepecha Indian blood courses in his veins.)

Cardenas made a recent campaign stop at Acteal, in the highlands of Chiapas, where 46 Tzotzil Mayan supporters of the EZLN were massacred by PRI-affiliated paramilitaries in December 1997. At that notorious spot, Cardenas called for a military and federal police pull-back from the conflict zone — a long-standing EZLN demand. Cardenas is the only one of the three leading candidates to have met with the EZLN.

Writes Mixe lawyer Adelfo Regino of the National Indigenous Congress, a bulwark in the battle to make the Indian Rights accords the law of the land: “Labastida and Fox are integrationists, but Cardenas endorses an autonomy that allows us to become truly a part of Mexico on our own terms.”

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