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Jewish World Review Oct. 28, 1999 /18 Mar-Cheshvan, 5760

Michael Barone

Michael Barone
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Mexico votes – for real --
MEXICO CITY–The 2000 election that changes life most in North America may turn out not to be in the United States but south of our 2,000-mile border with Mexico, with its 99 million people. To a visitor in Mexico, the most obvious sign of political change is in the campaign posters. In 1994, PRI–the official party, which has won every election since 1929–painted signs everywhere with the name of the party's candidate, chosen by the outgoing president, in big block letters between the red and green stripes of the Mexican flag. Posters for the center-right PAN or center-left PRD candidates were few.

This year PRI billboards show the four candidates in the party's first-ever primary November 7 and read: "Tú eliges al candidato" ("You choose the candidate"). Spots run on Mexico's formerly pro-PRI TV networks for PAN and PRD as well as PRI candidates; negative ads, never before seen here, now run, though voters interviewed in the industrial suburb of Coacalco found them unnerving.

Under the PRI system invented by Plutarco Calles in 1929, the campaign was a ritual progress of the candidate around the country, followed by five years of total power and a sixth year of bad luck in which the new candidate was chosen and the old president disappeared from public life. It was a system whose calendrical regularity and undertones of human sacrifice appealed to the Aztec sensibility that the great writer Octavio Paz said was a basic part of the Mexican character. Now the PRI candidate will be chosen in a primary, not by the incumbent president; so there is no guarantee who will win the PRI primary or the July 2000 general election.

Performance counts. This new competitive electoral politics has already started to change the political landscape and government. No one can stake a career on the assumption that PRI will always win. In 1997 elections, PAN and PRD deprived PRI of its majority in Congress; PAN and PRD candidates have been elected governor and mayor. Now voters rate politicians on their performance in office. In Coacalco, local PAN officials won their party votes by doing a good job, while the perception that PRD presidential candidate Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas did a poor job as mayor of Mexico City caused him to plunge in the polls.

PRI candidates have been competing adeptly under the new rules. Roberto Madrazo, who spent huge sums to be elected governor of Tabasco in 1994, started running negative ads last spring, attacking the PRI establishment, and seized a lead in polls. Francisco Labastida, the former interior minister, relying partly on the universally assumed support of President Ernesto Zedillo and local PRI apparatchiks, has hired U.S. consultants like pollster Stan Greenberg and James Carville to help fashion TV spots that use his record to show he is honest, dedicated to open elections, and close to people's problems.

Reporters thought Madrazo's sharp jabs helped him win a PRI candidates' debate September 8. But Labastida, who responded with only deft criticisms, moved ahead in polls in a country where voters still dread the disorder of nearly 20 years of violent revolution that preceded the PRI system. A question remains whether the primary loser will have a ruptura with PRI. A confident Labastida has promised he would not; Madrazo, at the PRI's October 13 platform meeting, carefully avoided ruling out a separate run. But exit polls and the government's new independent electoral commission have dramatically reduced fraud, and most Mexicans consider the process fair.

PAN's Vicente Fox, former head of Coca-Cola in Mexico, has been airing ads for two years telling how he defied PRI and got results as governor of Guanajuato. With his cowboy boots and bold speaking style, Fox has corralled the PAN base. Now, from a party traditionally pro-business, pro-United States and pro-Catholic, he has called for guaranteed education up to university, traveled to Cuba, and addressed a crowd of 90,000 Protestant evangélicos.

On policy, all parties are converging on the center. There is little NAFTA-bashing, and even the leftish Cárdenas has backed new privatizations. Elections will remain competitive even if Labastida wins for PRI, as insiders predict.

But competitive elections will not solve everything. There has been much stalemate between Zedillo and the anti-PRI Congress majority; no one is accustomed to divided government, which seems sure to continue. The unhappy fact is that Mexico's centralized government is often ineffective, as evidenced during last month's floods, when Zedillo was heckled for his government's unpreparedness. Levels of honesty among the police and government generally are abysmal.

More important, there is a danger that as power is decentralized the country could rip apart. There is decay of authority already: The crime rate in Mexico City has doubled since 1994; the Zapatista rebellion in the southern state of Chiapas is nearly six years old; students at UNAM, the nation's largest university, have been on strike for six months; and the illegal-drug business is still thriving despite claims of increased U.S.-Mexican cooperation. "We must break up the existing monopolies," wrote Octavio Paz in 1969, "and discover forms, new and truly effective forms, of democratic and popular control."

Mexico has started on Paz's path but has a long way to go.

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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©1999, Michael Barone