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Jewish World Review July 13, 2000 /10 Tamuz, 5760

Morton Kondracke

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Mexico's Election Supports U.S. Action On NAFTA, Bailout -- THE END of one-party rule in Mexico this week is a cause for cheer in the United States -- and a measure of self-congratulation.

As a democratic advance, Mexico's shift doesn't equal the fall of communism, but it is on par with the end of military rule in South Korea in 1987 or the ouster of Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines in 1985.

Besides being gratified, as the world headquarters of democracy, the United States should greet the victory of Mexico's opposition presidential candidate, Vicente Fox Quesada, with pride and anticipation -- and a resolve to help him succeed in solving onerous problems ahead.

Fox, candidate of the center-right National Action Party (PAN), beat Francisco Labastida Ochoa of the Institutional Revolutionary Party by 43 to 36 percent, ending 71 years of PRI domination. Left-wing opposition candidate Cuauhtemoc Cardenas Solorzano got 17 percent.

The United States did not play favorites in the election, but past policy -- notably, the North American Free Trade Agreement and President Clinton's bailout of the Mexican collapsing financial system in 1995 -- did make the opposition victory possible.

Even though the United States negotiated both transactions with PRI presidents, NAFTA and the bailout both strengthened the Mexican economy, especially in the industrial North, stronghold of the PAN.

PAN is the party of entrepreneurship, full democracy and Mexican competitiveness in the global economy. PRI, even though it has been moving in a reformist direction, still was the party of entrenched interests, bureaucracy and official corruption.

Naturally, credit for Mexico's transition does not primarily belong in the United States, but in Mexico -- and, especially, with Fox and outgoing PRI President Ernesto Zedillo.

Fox, unlike past PAN candidates, convinced voters that he was capable of leading the fractious country and would strive to attract investment to the poverty-ridden South and improve education. He's Mexico's version of a "compassionate conservative."

Zedillo, an economist with a Ph.D. from Yale, not only restored the economy from its 1995 crisis, but also instituted political reforms that made possible the clean election, which Fox won.

Zedillo was the first PRI president to abandon the tradition of handpicking his successor. Labastida was elected in a primary, although PRI stalwarts understood that he was Zedillo's favorite and put party machinery to work for him.

More importantly, Zedillo created a truly independent electoral commission to conduct the election, which went off with a minimum of vote-buying and intimidation. The campaigns were also publicly financed, enabling opposition parties to buy time on television.

Fox's victory is evidence that America's southern neighbor is poised to become a full, free-market democracy and a partner in the new world economy.

Mexico isn't there yet, though. Fox has a host of problems to overcome, including endemic corruption -- especially drug-related corruption -- as well as crime, poverty and resistance from interests that have profited handsomely during PRI's long rule.

Fox is promising a full-scale reorganization of police agencies to replace those that have repeatedly become dominated by drug traffickers and civil service reform to permit firing of bureaucrats.

He also suggested an anti-drug partnership between producing countries such as Colombia, Mexico as a transit country and the United States, the major consuming nation.

Most ambitiously, he proposed revival of Ronald Reagan's old idea of a North American Common Market that would permit free transit of goods, services and people between the United States, Canada and Mexico.

That may not be possible in the short run, but it's a goal the United States should work on diligently.

Fox is not the first Mexican president to promise full-scale reform. Others have failed to deliver. Zedillo's predecessor, Carlos Salinas de Gotari, was dubbed "Mexico's Gorbachev" for the economic changes he seemed to be instituting after he took office in 1988.

Salinas privatized banks and other state-owned industries and signed NAFTA, but it turned out that many of his privatization schemes, like those in Russia, turned out to be hand-overs of government assets to cronies of the ruling party, who were then hit up for huge donations to the PRI.

Salinas, who almost certainly took office as a result of vote fraud, left in even greater disgrace, suspected of having benefited from massive corruption presided over by his brother, Raul, who was later arrested for murder.

The current president, Zedillo, became the PRI nominee in 1994 upon the still-unsolved assassination of Salinas' handpicked successor, Donaldo Colosio.

Zedillo, though, has moved decisively toward reform. There is every reason to hope that, at last, Mexico can have competitive politics, an efficient economy and clean government. Whatever the United States can do to help, it should.

JWR contributor Morton Kondracke is executive editor of Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


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