A contest to get excited about: Mexico's election tomorrow will be cleaner and closer than ever before, says Phil Davison

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MEXICO City - President Carlos Salinas de Gortari was clearly a nervous man. In a rare live address to the nation on Mexican television on Thursday night, he continually swallowed and had trouble maintaining his cultivated paternalistic delivery.

He was urging Mexicans to vote tomorrow in elections which are supposed to decide his successor and replace the lower house of parliament and most of the Senate. There is considerable doubt as to whether the results will prove definitive.

That Mr Salinas felt the need to assure the nation that the elections would be clean - a tacit admission of past fraud - was unprecedented. It showed how fast things have changed here since mainly Mayan Indian peasant guerrillas took up arms in the south-eastern state of Chiapas on 1 January.

'The climate for the elections is favourable, although there are naturally uncertainties. That's the way democracy is,' Mr Salinas said. In fact, depending on Mr Salinas's sincerity, and whether he has his followers under control, it could be at least another six years before this nation gets to know how democracy is.

To the President's credit, although partly under duress, Mr Salinas has introduced electoral reforms in a nation where his ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) traditionally relied on coercion, threats or ballot-stuffing to ensure victory. He noted in his television address that he had introduced photo-credentials, and that ballot boxes would be transparent and numbered.

Despite this show of commitment, many Mexican viewers said they took the President's speech the way they take their tequila - with a pinch of salt - and that it was largely aimed at foreign electoral observers.

For the first time in Mexico's modern history, the outgoing president's hand-picked successor is not a (fraud-assisted) shoo-in. There will almost certainly be some degree of fraud. But whether cheating is exposed or remains unproven, the election outcome could still demolish the facade that has kept the PRI in uninterrupted power since 1929. Since the party has embodied the government, the system, indeed modern Mexico itself, tomorrow's result could have enormous reverberations for the whole continent.

Mexico does, after all, have a 2,000-mile border with the United States. It has long been an emblem of stability, albeit somewhat lacking in democracy and human rights, as well as a buffer between the US and the guerrilla- or dictator-plagued nations of Central and South America.

As long as Mexico steered a stable course, US administrations have been happy to ignore the fact that it is underwritten by rigged elections and police intimidation and brutality. But any rocking of the boat tomorrow could turn this country into one of the world's trouble spots overnight, facing the US with an unprecedented and unstoppable wave of refugees at a time when it already faces massive flows from Haiti and Cuba.

Thousands of Mexicans pour across the Rio Grande daily, some to seek a better life, others simply as day-workers, but almost all of them illegal immigrants. Many drown. The US Border Patrol has gone on alert as a precaution in advance of tomorrow's Mexican vote. The threat of a spread of armed movements - Indians and/or leftists - in Mexico in the event of fraud could force the US to militarise its long border.

Any sign of electoral fraud could also jeopardise Mexico's place in the North American Free Trade Agreement (Nafta), which has been Mr Salinas's main foreign and economic policy achievement. Both the US and Canada made Mexican democracy a condition of the trade agreement. And the OECD, which admitted Mexico earlier this summer, applied the same terms.

The likelihood remains that the PRI candidate, Ernesto Zedillo, will win. Virtually all opinion polls put him ahead of the conservative National Action Party (PAN) candidate, Diego Fernandez de Cevallos, with the populist Cuauhtemoc Cardenas of the Democratic Revolution Party (PRD) a distant third. But the polls cannot tell the whole story. For one thing, they may have been influenced by the very fear, coercion and fraud that have kept the PRI in power. For another, whether the PRI scores an overwhelming or a narrow victory, Mr Cardenas is almost certain to scream 'fraud]' - convinced, like many Mexicans, that he was cheated out of the presidency by computer 'alchemy' six years ago.

Even if the polls are basically right, a PRI victory by a narrow margin would be its biggest setback, indicating that a majority of Mexicans had rejected the long- ruling party for the first time. That would make it difficult for Mr Zedillo to govern effectively, even if, as expected, he cut a deal with Mr Fernandez de Cevallos to accept a few cabinet posts.

If Mr Fernandez de Cevallos wins, Mr Cardenas, 60 years old and aware this is probably his last shot at the presidency, is still likely to make waves by claiming PRI-PAN collusion. The two parties have reached deals in the past at provincial level and their neo- liberal economic policies are virtually identical. Indeed, Mr Salinas, in what many see as a sensible tactical move, has, during his term, conceded defeat in three state gubernatorial elections. The PAN now rules in Baja California, Chihuahua and Guanajuato.

The PRD has never won, or at least been granted, a gubernatorial victory. But it has a chance tomorrow in the one governor's race at stake, in Chiapas.

Mr Cardenas has called on his supporters to take to the main squares of all Mexican towns and villages at midday on Monday 'to celebrate victory'. It is, in effect, a pre-emptive mobilisation of 'civil resistance' in the event of fraud.

Were Mr Cardenas to score a surprise victory tomorrow, the other two would have little basis for questioning the result. It is not inconceivable, however, that PRI hardliners would try to keep the populist leader from taking office on 1 December. If that sounds far- fetched, it is worth recalling that many Mexicans believe PRI hardliners killed both the Archbishop of Guadalajara, in May 1993, and the PRI's original presidential candidate, Luis Donaldo Colosio, last March. Neither assassination has yet been officially attributed, though Colosio's killer is in jail.

Mr Cardenas is the only candidate who would seek changes to the Nafta agreement. He would be likely to renegotiate sections of the accord to placate Mexican coffee growers and to facilitate the movement of Mexican workers into the US. And he has quietly laid hold of another important card. He has gradually made it clear that he and Subcomandante Marcos, leader of the so-called Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN) in Chiapas, see pretty much eye to eye on the country's future.

A Cardenas victory would almost certainly see a peace deal with the rebels. The other side of that coin is that, in the event of a PRI victory with any hint of fraud, there might be a renewed EZLN uprising in support of Mr Cardenas's protests, this time perhaps spreading to other states.

European diplomats in the capital said Mr Salinas, meeting them this week, predicted a PRI victory with 49 per cent of the vote, against 31 per cent for the PAN and 15 per cent for the PRD. This scenario puts the PRI into power by a significantly greater margin than the polls are suggesting. Wouldn't it be fascinating, the diplomats noted, if the President's predictions proved to be spot-on?

Sandra Barwick is away.

(Photograph omitted)