Philip Bennett, Globe Staff
The Boston Globe
July 9, 1988
MEXICO CITY - Preliminary results compiled by the Mexican government from Wednesday's hotly contested presidential election show the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party hanging onto power by the smallest margin in the party's 59-year history, party officials said yesterday.
The returns indicate that the ruling party candidate, Carlos Salinas de Gortari, was leading with 47.4 percent of the vote, followed by leftist candidate Cuauhtemoc Cardenas with 26.7 percent and conservative Manuel J. Clouthier with 20.7 percent.
The figures were the first significant official results to be made public since the polls closed. Their release by the ruling party yesterday afternoon was criticized as premature by opposition supporters, who have charged that Salinas could be named the winner only as a result of electoral fraud.
Salinas defended the tallies during an interview with reporters last night, saying they described a "new political reality" of pluralism. Senior party officials said yesterday that the results would entail the first losses ever for the ruling party in the Mexican Senate.
"These results reflect real votes from the election," Salinas said. "It's the credibility of the results that's the starting point for the new administration."
Unprecedented delays in the release of official returns have raised questions about the outcome of voting and have embarrassed Salinas, whose claim Thursday of an "unquestionable" victory had gone unsubtantiated by either his party or the government.
The lack of preliminary figures, which government officials said was due to a record turnout and a breakdown in computers used to tabulate votes, was interpreted as a sign that the ruling party, known by its Spanish initials as the PRI, might be running even with or possibly behind its opposition.
The returns released by the PRI yesterday were said to represent 4,464,278 votes, roughly 38 percent of the votes tabulated by the government so far. They were collected from 12,000 polling places across the country.
By law, all the official returns must be announced by the government-controlled Federal Electoral Commission by Sunday.
If accurate, the results would confirm the view that Wednesday's elections heralded a historic political realignment in Mexico away from a one-party culture that has been dominated by the PRI since its founding in 1929.
Before Wednesday's voting, the PRI had not come close to losing a presidential, gubernatorial, or Senate race and has portrayed itself as the embodiment of the national identity. No president since the Mexican revolution of 1910 has entered office with less than 70 percent of the vote.
That Salinas might be elected with less than a majority would have been nearly inconceivable before Wednesday. Last night, a senior government official hinted that the ruling party has for the first time lost some of the 64 Senate seats and many of the 500 congressional seats at stake.
Cardenas advisers said yesterday that their own vote tallies showed their candidate leading Salinas 43 percent to 29 percent. They asserted that Cardenas won an outright majority in Mexico City, the capital, where nearly a quarter of Mexico's 85 million people reside.
"The PRI is a plane going down out of control," Porfirio Munoz Ledo, a close adviser to Cardenas, said in an interview yesterday. "The whole of Mexico knows that Cuauhtemoc won the elections. If the PRI violates the law, it will be an illegitimate government."
The possibility that Cardenas might be near victory has amazed political experts here and has raised questions about how Salinas, a 40-year-old economist educated at Harvard University, will be able to govern if he is sworn in for a six-year term Dec. 1.
""The country is astonished and paralyzed," Adolfo Aguilar, a prominent political scientist, said yesterday. "The damage to the PRI is already done. For all political purposes, they have lost the elections."
Whether Cardenas accepts the official results is regarded as crucial to a peaceful transition. The 55-year-old candidate, who is the son of one of Mexico's most illustrious presidents and was a PRI member himself until last year, has acquired enormous prestige during a campaign on behalf of four leftist parties.
Although the closeness of the race surprised many Mexican and foreign analysts, hostility towards the PRI has been building during last six years. Since President Miguel de la Madrid assumed office in 1982, the worst economic crisis in generations has lowered Mexicans' average purchasing power by 70 percent.
The party has also lost support because of the technocratic style of leadership that Salinas is thought to epitomize. Salinas had not held elective office when he was designated as the presidential candidate by de la Madrid last fall.
Salinas struggled to earn the loyalty of the party's gigantic electoral machine, which apparently let him down Wednesday.
Speaking to reporters last night, he reiterated his campaign pledges to modernize Mexico's political and economic life, a goal he said was supported by the preliminary election results.
"The results that we have are a ratification of plurality and of the new political reality that we are living in Mexico," he said.
Cardenas has remained quiet since the election on whether he might mobilize supporters to contest unfavorable results. The other top opposition candidate, Manuel Clouthier, announced Thursday that he would lead a march through the capital today by his National Action Party to protest alleged fraud.
The delay in the vote count was regarded as unprecedented in a Mexican presidential election. Both the government and the ruling party had promised to release preliminary results on Wednesday shortly after the 6 p.m. closing time at the country's 54,456 polling places.
The government said malfunctioning computers and "atmospheric conditions" made the tally impossible. But opposition members pointed out that the computer network was unnecessary since for the first time results of voting had been posted outside precincts and needed only to be collected.