Mexico's Democratic Agenda

August 23, 1994

Mexico has voted to close out the century still under the control of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) that has held uninterrupted power since 1929. Although charges of scattered irregularities have accompanied the victory of Ernesto Zedillo, a 42-year-old Yale-trained technocrat, his triumph is a step forward in Mexico's labored development of a credible democratic system.

For the United States, the results virtually insure continuity of economic policies that have opened up Mexico to foreign investment and broken down protectionist barriers through adoption of the North American Free Trade Agreement. But if economic reform was to be the hallmark of President Carlos Salinas, whose single six-year-term ends Dec. 1, Mr. Zedillo is almost committed by circumstance to putting his emphasis on what he called "the march of democracy."

There is still a long march to go. Although turnout was heavy and relatively tranquil Sunday as Mexico's new $1 billion tamper-resistant voting system was given its first real try-out, the development of a true democracy will require more fundamental changes. The machinery and machinations of government and ruling party have to be separated, much on the model seem in the former Soviet Union. Rival parties have to be given a more level playing field in local and state as well as national elections. Though the PRI will dominate both houses of parliament, Mr. Zedillo might want to bring some non-PRI leaders into his Cabinet.

This will not be an easy task, not least because the PRI was able to amass a plurality roughly equal to the combined totals of the National Action Party (PAN) on the right and the Democratic Revolutionary Party on the left. So-called "dinosaurs" in the PRI will want to hold onto a power network of alliances with organized labor, business, farmers, the press and other interest groups. But until a genuinely competitive, multi-party system emerges, cleaner elections will be important -- not decisive. At vTC issue here are societal changes that would be daunting to any political leader.

This imposing democratic agenda does not detract from what Mexico has accomplished this year. Despite an armed uprising in Chiapas, the assassination of the first PRI candidate, fears of election-time violence and suspicions of fraud left over from Mr. Salinas' tainted victory six years ago, Mr. Zedillo and his party scored a creditable victory. Our neighbor below the Rio Grande has demonstrated its patience and resilience once again.

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