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In the Fields of REFORM : One Country's Crisis

August 28, 1988|Octavio Paz | Mexican poet-essayist Octavio Paz is the author of "One Earth, Four or Five Worlds" (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich). This article is adapted from a series published by La Jornada of Mexico City, translated by Margarita Nieto.

MEXICO CITY — The number of voters taking part in the July 6 elections in Mexico was extraordinary. I am 74 years old and I had never seen anything similar. The results were no less surprising. The first to be surprised must have been the opposition parties. Did they expect so many votes? And the "Pristas"--all of the Old Guard members of PRI, the Institutional Revolutionary Party--could they have imagined the magnitude of their losses?

In one day, the Mexicans' secret and free vote ended the one-party system. The PRI's own candidate, Carlos Salinas de Gortari, recognized that fact shortly after the election. We are now beginning to take our first steps on unfamiliar territory: the regime of pluralist parties.

After having peacefully finished off a political tradition that lasted more than half a century, are we capable of living together in an open democracy with all its risks and limitations? Pluralism is relativism and relativism is tolerance. In modern democracies there are no absolute truths nor parties endowed with those truths. Absolutes belong to the realm of private life; they are the domain of religious beliefs or of philosophical convictions. In open societies, defeat is provisional and victory is relative.

The relativism of modern democracies contradicts our political tradition. The contradiction is twofold: In our history, neither the conqueror nor the vanquished has ever accepted the fact that triumphs or defeats were relative and provisional. All or nothing, a formula that is more religious than political.

A glance at our recent past demonstrates that, with the exception of Francisco I. Madero (1911-13), the legitimacy of our presidents has been, at the very least, doubtful. Some were obviously imposed upon us, others won elections but their triumphs would have been less one-sided and more contested if they had not counted on the resources and power of the PRI. The party has been, since its founding in 1929, the political branch of the government, just as the army and the police have been its military branch.

In all these cases, the victories were total and absolute: The victors never shared their power with their adversaries. The other face of the coin is no less deplorable--all the losing candidates argued that they had been victims of fraud and many among them took up arms to defend their rights. Every four years there was an uprising. The party was founded by Plutarco Elias Calles (president 1924-28) precisely to end these procedures. He ended them, but he also finished off democracy. The lesson of the past is clear.

Within the attitudes of the opposition parties there is more than an echo of that terrible past that I have just summarily evoked. Since election day itself, the denunciations have not ceased: They have been victims of a colossal fraud. I have carefully read their arguments and I must confess that I am not convinced.

I am not going to start an analysis of the numbers presented by one or the other. That is a matter for the public domain and the press has been giving daily attention to election statistics. I think that anyone who impartially and dispassionately examines the matter will arrive at conclusions similar to my own. Undoubtedly, there were irregularities: furthermore, blunders and errors. That is natural. Aside from the unhealthy persistence of our past in the habits of the PRI and in the spirit of its opposition, one must remember that these are the first elections of this type ever held in Mexico. No one had the necessary experience, not the government, not the PRI, not the opposition--not the people themselves,

Democracy is a political philosophy but it is also an apprenticeship and a technique. Certainly, blunders and errors can be explained, but irregularities? Of course; we all insist that the Electoral College examine each case clearly and rigorously and under the scrutiny of the public. It is not impossible for the opposition to have won in more districts that those already conceded to it. But it is one thing to formulate legitimate reservations and protests and another to demand that the elections be declared invalid and to self-proclaim oneself president.

Is this dispute on the elections' validity a reflection of our political immaturity? Yes and no. It is clear that our past and its tendency to confuse the absolute and the relative, the religious and the political is still alive and expresses itself in many of our attitudes. We are not yet--for better or worse--an entirely modern society. Since independence, our institutions, our ideas and our customs have varied: Today we travel by plane, we're interested in molecular biology, the Marxist crisis and "punk," but have our deepest beliefs and fundamental attitudes really changed?

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