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Mexicans fear contested vote will spark powderkeg

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MEXICO CITY — To most Mexicans, Sunday's presidential vote is a potentially explosive cocktail of a ruling party that has never lost, an increasingly feisty opposition and an uncertain result. That is breeding fear.

Just the thought of violence from the most hotly contested race in modern Mexico has many here planning to shutter themselves inside after casting their ballots.

It is a curious fear based on gut feeling, because for the first time in seven decades of single-party rule, no one knows who will win—or, crucially, how the loser will react. Will he cry fraud? Will his supporters take to the streets?

"I don't know. But it's just that — it's that nobody knows what to expect or who will win," said Gerardo Feral, an accountant in Mexico City. "So, I guess there is a fear here, a fear of how things are going to turn out."

Opinion polls have shown opposition candidate Vicente Fox has a real chance of beating Francisco Labastida, candidate of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) which has governed since 1929.

Polls also show nearly two-thirds of Mexicans are fed up with the PRI after a recent legacy of corruption that has done little to narrow a large gap between rich and poor.

Labastida aides predict Fox will not take defeat easily.

"Fox has created so many expectations in his campaign that it's hard to believe he would go home and simply accept defeat," said Fernando Solis, Labastida campaign strategist, as the campaign officially drew to a close on Wednesday.

And if Fox wins, his supporters say Labastida's people will be the ones protesting on the streets—unaccustomed to seeing power slip from their hands.

A day indoors

Most Mexicans can recite by memory the PRI's past record of fraud, including the 1988 election widely believed to have been stolen from leftist veteran Cuauhtemoc Cardenas, running again in this race but expected to come in third place.

It was Cardenas' call for restraint during massive street protests in 1988 that likely averted bloodshed.

Even though the government and observers agree this will likely be the cleanest vote in Mexican history, the people themselves will believe it when they see it.

"I am scared the PRI will try to steal the election, the opposition will not allow it, and the whole thing will end with blood on the streets," says Claudia Sucar, a 30-year old entrepreneur who runs a packaging business in Mexico City.

"I'm going to vote on Sunday, and lock myself up in my house and hope for the best," she added.

Sucar is not alone. From businessmen and stock market traders to taxi drivers and vendors, people around Mexico City say they plan to vote and return home.

"I don't want to work on Sunday or Monday for the same reason," said Raul Sanchez Ramirez, a 52-year-old cab driver. "It is definitely possible that we see some serious protests."

"The worst will be if Labastida wins by only one vote because, here everyone knows that one vote was stolen."

A narrow Labastida win would almost guarantee a challenge by the opposition, which could, in turn, spread worry into financial markets that have largely bet on smooth elections.

The fate of that challenge could ironically lie at the feet of Cardenas, who could back up Fox's challenge or dismiss it.

Appeals for calm

Financial market analysts, international observers and politicians have all preached calm ahead of the vote, assuring people and international investors that the process will run a peaceful course, allowing for a smooth transition of power.

With at least 400 foreign observers, poll supervision by a newly independent watchdog along with extensive voter registration lists, the 2000 elections should be clean.

"But we've seen it all," said Oscar, a 27-year-old street clown who declined to give his last name. "In our streets and in these elections, anything can happen and anything has already happened. Absolutely, don't doubt it."

The independent Federal Electoral Institute can call for federal, state and municipal aid on Sunday to protect voting stations. The military, police and security personnel will remain on alert for disturbances, officials say.

"The police will be in the streets, probably waiting," said Celestino Galan, a school bus driver. "We've had violence before so I wouldn't be surprised. It's nothing I haven't seen. It's nothing that hasn't happened here before."