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Jewish World Review July 11, 2000 /8 Tamuz, 5760

Michael Barone

Michael Barone
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Consumer Reports

The new Mexico: The 20-year history behind an overnight change --
MEXICO CITY–Here beneath the statue of the Angel of Independence, as the crowd celebrating the election of Vicente Fox jumped in unison, you could feel the earth move up and down. Literally, because Mexico City is built on a swampy lake bed, but metaphorically as well, because it was clear that Mexican politics–and Mexico–would never be the same again. Fox's 43 percent to 36 percent victory in the presidential election broke the 71-year control of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) and will make him the first president from the conservative National Action Party (PAN). But it also marks the emergence of a new Mexico, a change in the character of the people.

"In few countries of the world are history, politics, and social structure so mirrored in and a mirror of the character of its people," wrote Alan Riding in his 1985 book, Distant Neighbors. He described a culture of mestizaje, a mixture of European and Mesoamerican, and a country that happily accepted one-party rule by the PRI since it was created in 1929. PRI won every election, stealing votes or making up results when necessary. It bragged of its 1930s achievements–distribution of land to peasants, nationalization of the oil industry–and embodied Mexican nationalism. PRI government was a term-limited absolute monarchy: Each president chose his successor. PRI controlled labor unions, doled out favors to friendly businesses, provided cushy jobs for intellectuals ("to live outside the budget is to live in error," the saying went). With high tariffs, it cut Mexico's economy off from the rest of the world.

But in 1982, with oil prices plunging, a new president was chosen who was not a political insider but a técnico–the first of three presidents with Ph.D.'s from American universities. Carlos Salinas, elected in 1988 after a suspicious breakdown in the vote-counting computer, privatized industries, broke the power of the unions, negotiated the North American Free Trade Agreement, and recognized PAN winners of state governorships. Ernesto Zedillo, elected in 1994 after Salinas's first choice was murdered, created an independent electoral commission and ended the practice of choosing his successor. In 1997 elections, PRI for the first time failed to elect a majority of the lower house of Congress.

Passion's power. Still, Fox's victory was anything but ensured. In the days just before the July 2 election, political insiders were uncertain who would win. PRI's Francisco Labastida, nominated in a November 1999 primary, held small leads in most polls. Neither PRI, hoping for big rural margins, nor PAN, fearful of vote-buying and fraud, expected the solid Fox victory. It was the result not of last-minute switches but of fervor among Fox supporters. In interviews with voters in Mexico City and the industrial suburb of Ecatepec, Mexicans for PAN spoke passionately about the need for change, for stopping corruption, for an end to one-party rule. PRI voters spoke briefly and perfunctorily. High school- and college-educated voters, 30 percent of the electorate in 1994, surged to 39 percent of the electorate in 2000 in the Televisa Mitofsky exit poll and voted 53 percent to 27 percent for Fox. Voters under 40, more than 60 percent of the electorate in fast-growing Mexico, favored Fox by 47 percent to 34 percent. Up through 1982 PRI never got less than two thirds of the presidential vote. But among Mexicans not old enough to vote then, only one third are voting PRI.

The rural areas still gave PRI a 52 percent to 25 percent margin. But they account for only 21 percent of the vote, and PRI's handouts didn't always work. A Fox TV ad showed a peasant woman taking a food basket from a PRI worker, then showed her house with Fox stickers; a U.S. observer saw PRI workers doling out food in a rural Chiapas precinct, but when the ballots were counted, Fox won. "Tu voto es libre y secreto," said the ballot boxes, and voters believed them. "Fox's swaggering self-confidence was critical," said consultant Dick Morris, "because all PRI's threats meant nothing if PRI lost."

Faith in PRI as the party of Mexico is dying out. Enthusiasm for Fox's vision of Mexico–two-party politics, corruption-free government, free-market growth–is growing in a new urbanizing, young Mexico. The culture is still mestizaje, but–as Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan show–democracy and freedom can thrive in a non-European culture.

Mexico is now small "d" democratic; the question is whether it can become small "r" republican. Fox's PAN lacks majorities in both houses of Congress; he will have to win votes from other parties, as Zedillo has done since 1997, horse-trading to pass his budget by the December 31 deadline three years in a row. More important, despite the técnicos' economic growth, wages have not risen over the past 15 years because of devaluations of the peso. Looking ahead 20 years, Sergio Sarmiento of TVAzteca hopes that 5 percent annual economic growth will translate into higher wages, as in South Korea, and that the corrupt justice system can be reformed and business monopolies be subjected to competition. The earth shook at the Angel of Independence, but Fox–and the new Mexicans who elected him–need to keep it moving to put Mexico securely in the First World.

JWR contributor Michael Barone is a columnist at U.S. News & World Report and the author of the biennialAlmanac of American Politics. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


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©2000, Michael Barone