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Mexico's New Beginning

June 19, 1988

Mexicans take pride in the fact they fought the first great social revolution of the 20th Century. Seven years before the Russian Revolution, Mexico had already embarked on the painful process of building a modern nation from a rural society with a long history of colonial exploitation. But the work begun by the Mexican Revolution of 1910 is unfinished. And the key question in the July 6 presidential election is whether it can be carried forward without basic economic reforms.

The man expected to win a six-year presidential term--or sexenio , as Mexicans refer to it--is Carlos Salinas de Gortari, the candidate of the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). Because of voter disaffection caused by Mexico's economic problems, Salinas faces a tougher election contest than a PRI presidential candidate has faced in many years. No one expects him to lose, however. The PRI has won every major election in Mexico for 60 years, although some of those victories were tainted by allegations of fraud.

Instead, the campaign is being closely watched to see how Salinas and the PRI deal with the challenge posed by two major rivals: Manuel Clouthier, the candidate of the conservative National Action Party (PAN), and Cuauhtemoc Cardenas, the son of former Mexican President Lazaro Cardenas. He is a former PRI member himself, and his candidacy is supported by other party dissidents and several small leftist parties.

The PRI was created in the 1920s by political leaders like Cardenas' father who had survived the revolution and wanted to preclude further violence. They built a broad-based party in which contending factions attempt to reach a private consensus on political issues rather than squabble over them publicly as is done in most other democracies, including the United States. The system worked remarkably well as long as Mexico's economy grew, and the PRI came to be regarded as a model of political stability in Latin America. But that began to change when a stunned world watched Mexican security forces brutally repress student demonstrations on the eve of the 1968 Olympics.

PRI leaders have been on the defensive ever since. Their hold on voter loyalty has softened even more in recent years as the nation's economic situation has worsened, with the price of oil and other Mexican commodities dropping just as large debts to international banks came due. Mexican leaders like President Miguel de la Madrid, convinced that their economy is fundamentally sound but needs time to readjust, are trying to repay the debts, but the effect has been painful austerity.

The social groups hardest hit by austerity, Mexico's middle class and its many poor, are behind the current electoral challenges to the PRI. Cardenas, whose coalition is called the Democratic National Front, demands that more of Mexico's resources be spent to help the poor--even if it means repudiating the $100-billion debt. Clouthier speaks for the middle class when he demands more economic freedom for businessmen like himself, who he insists are constrained in Mexico's largely state-run economy.

The problems of the PRI also stem from its own shortcomings. Over the years it has become riddled with cronyism and serious corruption. Mexico's voters are more sophisticated today than when the party was founded, and are less willing to accept control by a single party--especially one perceived as corrupt. But the party remains an efficient political machine, capable of getting its supporters to the polls by the busload if need be. Hence Salinas' expected victory.

The candidate is the latest in a line of colorless technocrats whom the PRI has nominated for president in recent years. He was the planning and budget secretary for De la Madrid, who hand-picked Salinas to be his successor. Like De la Madrid, Salinas is a Harvard-trained economist and has a reputation for honesty and competence. Perhaps more important, he is only 40--younger than most other PRI leaders and with a genuinely different view of how the party should operate. He privately acknowledges the PRI's problems, and is trying to promote reform from within.

So the first indication of how effective a president Salinas may be will come on election day. He has promised an open and honest election, even if it means that he will not win by the overwhelming margins that PRI candidates have run up in the past. That is a challenge to old-line PRI strategists, who warn that if voter support for the party falls below 65% it will be perceived as a sign of weakness. Many observers expect these older apparatchiks to try to push the vote over 65%, by fraud if necessary. If fraud is detected, it will be a setback for Salinas, despite his election victory, and a most inauspicious beginning to his sexenio.

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