Mexico's Turbulent Election

June 17, 1994

Rejection of the Mexican government's peace plan by rebel forces in Chiapas provides a preview of one of the near certainties in the tumultuous national election campaign now unfolding south of the Rio Grande. The results of the Aug. 21 polling will be rejected, too, no matter how great a show of fraud-free voting is displayed by the government.

At this stage of the campaign, after rebellion in Chiapas and the assassination of the initial candidate of the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), the surprise front-runner is Diego Fernandez de Cevallos of the right-wing National Action Party (PAN). He demolished Ernesto Zedillo Ponce de Leon, the PRI's substitute candidate, and Cuauhtemoc Cardenas, of the left-wing Revolutionary Democratic Party (PRD), in the nation's first-ever televised presidential debate.

All three of the established parties, even Mr. Cardenas' PRD, are concerned about the prospect of post-election unrest. And concerned they should be. Like any revolutionary force, the Zapatista National Liberation Army knows its power lies in rejecting government enticements and always demanding more, more, more. Thus, lame-duck President Carlos Salinas' promises public works and money for education and economic development in the long-neglected Chiapas region falls on deaf ears. "We won't accept anything that comes from the rotten heart of the bad government, not a single coin," proclaimed a rebel communique.

Does this mean that Mexico is doomed to unrest and upheaval? That the promise of the North American Free Trade Agreement plus Salinas reforms in opening the country to foreign trade and investment will come to naught? That even Mr. Cardenas cannot overcome the fears and suspicions of millions of poor people after 66 years of uninterrupted authoritarian rule?

Mexican history provides contradictory answers: the violence of the revolution in the second decade of this century and the repressed calm that has prevailed ever since. What President Salinas is discovering is that freeing up the economy inevitably leads to pressures for freeing up the political system. There is little doubt he has made valiant efforts to improve education, provide water and electricity for Mexican villages and create jobs in an increasingly internationalized economy. But his government's showcase attempts to clean up a notoriously corrupt and unfair political system have encountered deep and pervasive skepticism.

Americans are left to hope that this election, for all its tremors, will mark a great leap forward for clean and creditable democracy as a byproduct of Mr. Salinas' economic reforms. No country in the world impacts more directly on American society than does Mexico. We cannot be unconcerned about what is happening right next door.

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