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Mexican Politics May Shape Up for Real Elections

November 09, 1987|JORGE G. CASTANEDA | Jorge G. Castaneda is a graduate professor of political science at the National Autonomous University of Mexico.

MEXICO CITY — As Mexico's presidential succession and electoral campaign move forward, a faint light of change in the country's political landscape begins to flicker on the horizon. For now, the promising signs are few and far between; yet they exist. As recently as a year ago, there had been little reason to expect any significant reform of the nation's effective but increasingly obsolete political system.

The first hopeful sign is the apparent conviction of Carlos Salinas de Gortari, the PRI (Institutional Revolutionary Party) presidential candidate and anointed successor to President Miguel de la Madrid, that things cannot go on as they are.

In the first major speech of his campaign, Salinas said that the PRI's traditional policy of proclaiming victory in every election was no longer acceptable. He acknowledged that the PRI had been "bruised" in several state and local elections in northern Mexico recently, and that the electoral system's credibility had been severely tested.

This somewhat path-breaking observation was made all the more significant by the fact that Salinas made it in a speech in Hermosillo, the capital of Sonora, where the 1985 state elections sparked widespread claims of fraud. One swallow does not bring on spring, and one speech cannot change decades of fraudulent electoral practice. Just three days after the Hermosillo speech, elections for governor and municipal governments in Coahuila were seriously marred by charges of fraud and violence; the three most important political parties in the state all called for the election's annulment.

There is little doubt that the resistance to change in this domain is tremendous; and it is clear that Salinas is both the product and the prisoner of the very system he now says he wants to reform. But by recognizing that there is a problem--when until now the government had refused to see one--and by accepting that many Mexicans are profoundly cynical about the country's electoral system, Salinas has made a step forward in one of the areas of Mexican life that most requires change and renewal.

His contribution would be greatly strengthened by the positive outcome of another hope-inspiring trend in today's political situation. The myriad political parties and groups that make up the Mexican left are considering the possibility of jointly supporting the presidential candidacy of Cuauhtemoc Cardenas, one of the leaders of the so-called Democratic Current, a group of disaffected PRI and former PRI politicians and intellectuals.

Some sectors of the left are reluctant to align themselves with Cardenas, a former governor of Michoacan and son of the late Lazaro Cardenas, the most revered leader of this century, who in 1938 expropriated foreign interests in Mexico's oil industry. Others are wary of the company Cardenas keeps. That includes Porfirio Munoz Ledo, ex-president of the PRI, ex-secretary of labor and of education and ex-ambassador to the United Nations, who, despite his intelligence and political ability, awakens suspicions among the purists of the Mexican left. It is still possible that the intra-group squabbling will not be overcome and the Cardenas candidacy will not unite the entire left. It would be the left's loss, and the country's.

If this candidacy does mature, however, the electoral system that Salinas hopes to reform would suddenly possess at least the potential for an interesting contest. Cardenas could receive between 15% and 20% of the vote.

The right-of-center PAN (National Action Party) is about to nominate its candidate for the presidency, and if it acts reasonably and chooses a strong but not strident candidate, it could easily obtain between 20% and 25% of the vote.

More important, if the just-founded anti-fraud coalition made up of the left, the right and independent intellectuals prospers, the possibilities for reducing tampering in next year's presidential, congressional and senatorial elections would be significant, at least in the north and in the nation's largest cities.

Carlos Salinas de Gortari will be Mexico's next president, of that there is little doubt. The issue is under what circumstances he will be elected, and in what shape he will receive the country upon taking office. There are few things that could as much strengthen Salinas' presidency--and improve the general state of the nation--as a relatively clean and contested electoral campaign.

If a unified left and a civilized right hold him to the promises he has boldly begun to make, all the better.

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