What Mexico Needs

August 17, 1991

The success of President Carlos Salinas de Gortari in bringing a modern economy and democracy to Mexico rides on tomorrow's midterm election. The actual outcome of the votes for the lower house of the National Congress, half the upper house and six state governorships is not so important. What matters is the perception of honesty in the count.

Mr. Salinas leads the Party of Revolutionary Institutions (PRI) which has governed without serious challenge for 62 years. He was elected to the single six-year term in 1988, in an election that many observers thought the left-wing opponent, Cuauhtemoc Cardenas, had won. The left and right opposition won nearly half the congressional seats.

Mr. Salinas is in many respects a splendid president. He allowed a right-wing oppositionist to win a governorship in 1989. Much of the ossified statist economy is being sold off to vibrant private business. Inflation is down and economic growth is up. Foreign capital is pouring in. There's the rub. Much of it is European, preparing to invest in Mr. Salinas' biggest proposed reform, the free trade area to be negotiated with the United States and Canada. For many European banks and industries, this is the way to crack the North American -- that is, the U.S. -- market.

But much of this capital is waiting to see not only if the free trade area is negotiated and ratified by the United States, but also if Mexico proves that its political system can adapt to change peacefully, or if it will provide no alternative to social unrest and violence as the means to that end.

The polls for the election show a likely overall PRI victory in the congress, which should be helpful to Mr. Salinas' program. One leftist and one rightist have good chances to be elected state governors. But, despite some efforts to make the election

commissions independent, the big issue is honesty of the count. A clean election is a PRI election promise. The future health of Mexico rests on that promise being kept. Foreigners are waiting to see if Mexicans think it was.

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