It is possible to achieve free market economic growth before political democracy. The four tigers of the Pacific -- South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore and Hong Kong -- did. Economic liberalism then creates pressure for comparable political reform. President Carlos Salinas de Gortari is trying to emulate the Pacific Rim countries in Mexico. But where a political class smothers reform, a political change is needed first. Russia is a good example of that. Mexico may prove to be another.
Secretary of State James A. Baker III gave the U.S. seal of approval on the Salinas priorities, at the annual binational meeting of ministers in Mexico City. He rightly praised the Salinas "quiet revolution." Mr. Salinas has junked most of the nationalist and statist pieties of his Party of Revolutionary Institutions (PRI) and tried to free the market and lure foreign capital. Rather than redistribute poverty, he is trying to create wealth.
But in the long run, this will not be enough. For Mexico to join the U.S. and Canada in a North American Free Trade Area, for which negotiations are under way, Mexico is going to have to qualify as a democracy, or at least one in the making. Mr. Salinas will probably have to convince the U.S. Senate that the one-party state days are behind.
That may be difficult. In the Aug. 18 elections, PRI nearly swept the boards. Its economic policies stole the thunder of the rightist opposition party, PAN. And without the personal appeal of the charismatic Cuauhtemoc Cardenas, leftist parties have limited appeal. But there were the usual disquieting signs of stuffed ballot boxes and other games. In most races, these were not decisive. In at least one, they seemed to have been.
As a result of the stink in the state of Guanajuato, the PAN gubernatorial candidate who probably won did not, and the PRI victor stepped down. Mr. Salinas procured the installation of another PAN politician as interim governor, with a new election scheduled next year. That makes Carlos Medina Plascencia, the non-candidate winner, the second opposition-party state governor since PRI took power 62 years ago.
One result of the honest quotient in the midterm election is that PRI failed to achieve two-thirds of the seats in the Chamber of Deputies. This means that President Salinas cannot count on automatic votes to amend out of the Mexican constitution those statist clauses barring the North American Free Trade Area. He will have to persuade opposition deputies to go along.
Mr. Salinas has done wonders to liberate the ossified Mexican economy. He deserves the praise that Mr. Baker heaped on him. But the job is not done. The president, elected in 1988 by a count most Mexicans considered fraudulent, must also liberate the ossified body politic. The selection of Governor Medina in Guanajuato is a reasonable concession, but it is not, for the long haul, enough.