Mexico Uprising Brings New Political Climate

March 06, 1994|By GINGER THOMPSON

MEXICO CITY — Mexico City. -- For generations, Mexican people have demanded reforms that would allow them to choose their leaders in truly fair elections. The Institutional Revolutionary Party, which has controlled the Mexican government for 65 years, granted only superficial reforms.

Last week, President Carlos Salinas de Gortari budged.

In a stunning announcement, the president agreed to propose a series of election reforms aimed at quashing accusations of fraud from groups around the world, and more importantly from those at home.

Mr. Salinas had rejected the reforms less than six months ago, despite the demands of opposition parties and the peaceful protests of their followers.

But 2,000 rebels who emerged from the Lacandon rain forest in southern Mexico forced a change of attitude. On Jan. 1, rebels, mostly peasants armed with machetes and hunting rifles, declared war on the Mexican government.

In four days of bloodshed, in which at least 145 people were killed, the rebels forced the government to recognize and address the crushing poverty endured by indigenous people in the state of Chiapas.

The rebels, the Zapatista National Liberation Army, also denounced the PRI's dominance of the Mexican political system. And their clashes with the military gave President Salinas a disturbing glimpse of what the future of the country might look like if true political reforms are not enacted now.

In the 1988 presidential elec- tions, after the computers counting the votes mysteriously failed, protesters marched throughout the country declaring that President Salinas' victory was illegitimate.

The Zapatistas -- the Chiapas rebels took their name from Emiliano Zapata, hero of the 1910 Mexican revolution -- have sparked a wildfire that has spread far beyond the borders of Chiapas. If the government does not achieve credibility before the presidential elections in August and the PRI's Luis Donaldo Colosio is declared the winner, protests could become bloody. "If the PRI does not win in a credible performance, there will not be a peaceful transition of power," says Adolfo Aguilar Zinser, spokesman for the presidential campaign of Cuauhtemoc Cardenas.

"Hundreds of thousands of people will be out of control," Mr. Aguilar adds. "We are deeply impressed and frightened by what we have seen at Cardenas rallies. There is a lot of anger."

Mr. Cardenas, of the leftist Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD), is perhaps the most significant challenge to PRI authority in generations. Many believe he was the true winner of the elections in 1988.

Of other potential candidates, the nominee for the largest

opposition party, the right-wing National Action Party (PAN), is showing poorly in recent voter polls. And it has been widely speculated that the PRI's Manuel Camacho Solis, currently serving as the government's peace negotiator in Chiapas, is considering entering the race.

To prevent violence, President Salinas appears prepared to concede to a series of demands by opposition parties. In the coming days, government sources say, he will call an extraordinary session of Congress to adopt proposals that would permit international observers to monitor the elections, give opposition candidates twice the amount of advertising time on television, and restructure the 26-member council of the Federal Electoral Institute so that the PRI loses its majority.

"The power of the Zapatistas to cause these changes is not in the number of fighters or weapons it has, but in its power to create instability across the country," said one PRI official. "This one small group managed in its declarations to talk about things that almost all Mexicans want and believe. And they added one (( important ingredient: They showed that they are willing to die for their cause."

While government negotiators and rebel leaders began to wrap up their first round of negotiations last week, the government began its credibility campaign. The electoral institute agreed to hire an independent research company to audit the voter rolls. The institute proposed to increase penalties for illegal election activities, and the attorney general's office agreed to establish a new office to prosecute electoral criminals.

"The idea is to guarantee the transparency of the elections and to commit all parties to acknowledging and respecting the results of the election," said a government source.

"The campaign to win credibility is almost more important than the campaign to win votes," says Juan Francisco Escobedo Delgado, a PRI official who is working on the development of the party's campaign platform. Mr. Colosio, he said, "has to win, but he also has to convince people that he won."

Still, with all this, credibility may be impossible to achieve in a nation where there is a widespread belief that elections are staged not to determine the will of the people, but only to give the appearance that leaders are democratically elected.

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