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Long road to victory for Mexico party

Opposition leaders triumph over fraud and corruption

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MEXICO CITY — Hundreds of police and soldiers guarded Mexico's Congress one summer day 12 years ago as the ruling-party majority prepared to certify the scandal-marred election of Carlos Salinas de Gortari.

A freshman congressman named Vicente Fox — fraudulent ballots hung on his ears to mock the large-eared Salinas — rose to the podium and pretended to speak as the president-elect, expressing sorrow that he would have to rule "against the will of the people."

Watching the ceremony on television, Salinas reportedly turned to aides to ask: "And this one — who does he think he is?"

As it turned out, Fox was the man who would end the seven-decade reign of Salinas' party — a victory that had its roots in long struggles over frauds such as Salinas' in 1988 and in a slow, silent transformation of Mexican society.

"The Mexican case is unique because it has been very slow, very gradual," said Sergio Aguayo, a political scientist at the elite College of Mexico.

Many experts believe that no opposition party candidate could have had a victory accepted before at least 1994. And until this year, all presidential elections were tilted heavily in favor of the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI.

A few of the milestones on the path to an opposition victory:

The new party: In 1939, a small group launched the center-right National Action Party, or PAN. It would elect a few congressmen and mayors over the years, but it did not even try to field a presidential candidate until 1952. In the face of government intolerance, it remained a small party rooted in northern Mexico's middle class for almost half a century.

Cracks in the system: The PRI's all-embracing network of farm, labor and urban organizations routinely crushed rivals. But a strike by dissident railway workers was brutally suppressed by the government in 1958 — one of several events that began to weaken PRI labor unions.

The massacre: The army's massacre of student demonstrators in Mexico City in 1968 turned a generation of intellectuals — and later their students — against the ruling party. The hostility it created also made later generations of soldiers wary of being used for political ends as they had been in the past.

Free trade: President Miguel de la Madrid led Mexico toward private enterprise and free trade, entering the international General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade in 1986. He began selling off the state companies the PRI had used for decades as sources of jobs for supporters. Increasingly, Mexicans lived in cities and fewer worked for the state.

Revolt at the polls: In 1986, the PRI used fraud to keep National Action's Francisco Barrio from winning the governor's race in Chihuahua state along the U.S. border.

The Salinas opening: Reforms Salinas instituted cleaned up corrupt voting lists and created a semi-independent election board. "Salinas was plagued by illegitimacy, and he was acutely aware that the entire stability of the nation could hang by a thread if Mexico didn't have adequate electoral institutions," said M. Delal Baer, a Mexico specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. Other analysts stress that Salinas had to improve Mexico's reputation to win a free trade pact with the United States.

A dangerous man: In 1991, Salinas forced the PRI's Ramon Aguirre to quit after a fraud-marred victory over Fox in Guanajuato state. It made Fox a national figure. But Salinas balked at the dangerous Fox, and another PAN politician was named interim governor.

A wall falls: Mexico's constitution had barred Fox from the presidency because his mother was born in Spain. Some of Salinas' ambitious Cabinet secretaries faced the same ban. In 1993, Salinas had the constitution amended — but only in time for the year 2000, ruling out Fox as a contender in 1994.

Zedillo's opening: The PRI's Ernesto Zedillo won the free — if not wholly fair — election of 1994. He continued to dismantle the state sector, long a PRI power base, and had Congress make the electoral board fully independent of the government.

Fox's chase: Running for president virtually from the time he was finally elected governor of Guanajuato in 1995, Fox created an unprecedented national support network independent of his party. By the time National Action chose a candidate, he had overwhelmed rivals.

The PRI struggles: Zedillo let the party choose its own candidate for the first time. Francisco Labastida won the PRI's nomination after a bitter primary in which rival Roberto Madrazo called him "the perfect disaster." In the general election, many Madrazo voters turned to Fox.

The campaign: For the first time, the opposition had extensive public financing, heavy coverage in news media and an impartial electoral board. Most final polls showed Fox slightly behind Labastida. But Fox adviser Jorge Castaneda said the legal three-day moratorium on campaigning before the election softened the impact of Labastida's attacks and let voters recall their deeply rooted distrust of the PRI.

Victory: Moments after polls closed on July 2, Mexicans were stunned when television exit polls showed they had elected their first opposition party president. At about 11:30 p.m., as official results started to come in, Zedillo appeared on television to congratulate Fox.