MEXICO CITY — On a rainy Friday a couple of weeks ago, Felix Salgado Macedonio, the candidate of the left opposition National Democratic Front (FDN) from the 2nd Congressional District of Guerrero state, walked up to the presidium of the Mexican Chamber of Deputies with two coarse sacks over his shoulder. He then calmly emptied the contents of the sacks on the smooth green rug in front of the presidential dais--thousands of ballots cast in his favor and then burned or half-burned to deprive him of his victory and give it to the official candidate of the PRI (Institutional Revolutionary Party).
By emptying his sacks, Salgado threw a handful of volcanic dust in the face of traditional Mexican politics. His Ash Friday ceremony worked. The Electoral College reversed the official result, gave Salgado his rightful seat and consoled his PRI opponent by making him a proportional party representative.
In the past two months, Mexico has undergone a greater political change than at any time in the past two decades. What has changed? Salgado and his dramatic victory illustrate the fact that the 59-year PRI stranglehold over political life has ended. The results of the July elections left the PRI with only a slim majority in the newly constituted Congress. Executive initiatives will have to pass minute examination and protracted debate in both chambers. Horse-trading, tactical alliances, compromise will become normal events. For the first time, opposition candidates have been elected to the Senate. It is a question of time before the upper house admits proportional representation. The Mexican Congress has ceased to be a rubber-stamp institution.
So what has changed in Mexico? The Congress has more power, the president less. The executive will now be subject to a system of checks and balances. This is a tremendous change in a country where the presidential institution has been given a quasi-sacred status. The president of Mexico has derived his authority from overwhelming, at times fraudulent, PRI victories; but also from more intangible, symbolic traditions reflecting Mexico's pre-Columbian and Iberian political sources. The Aztec emperor was given the title of Tlatoani, He of the Great Voice, and the Spanish monarch ruled under divine right. Their subjects were not only profane, but expected to remain silent.
As of Sept. 1, when outgoing President Miguel de la Madrid was frequently interrupted and heckled by the opposition as he delivered his State of the Union message, the Mexican presidency has been desanctified. What was wrong is expressed in the old joke in which Porfirio Diaz, for 30 years president and dictator until the 1910 Revolution overthrew him, asks a politician, "What time is it?" and the obsequious underling replies, "Any time you say, Mr. President." In this new Mexico, presidents and their cabinet ministers will be strongly questioned by Congress and expected to answer.
All of this is politics as usual in Western Europe, Japan or the United States. But it is politics extraordinario in Mexico. A virtual one-party system has been succeeded by an effective multiparty system, closer to Latin European models (Spain, France, Italy), with their wide ideological spectrum, than to the North American two-party system, with its extremely narrow ideological choice. To the right of the PRI stands the PAN (National Action Party), the traditional and well-rooted party of the conservative Catholic middle class. To its left, the FDN and its electoral alliance going from Marxist to social-democratic tendencies. The PRI has really become a party--a part instead of the whole; a participant in politics rather than a synthesis of national politics.
Why did things change? The reason is twofold. A successful system, in comparative Latin American terms, offered political stability and economic growth in exchange for almost unlimited power. No military coups, no unmovable personal dictatorships, but rather a flexible, formally renewable system under the roof of the so-called "revolutionary family," heirs to the 1910-1940 revolution of Francisco I. Madero, Pancho Villa, Emiliano Zapata and Lazaro Cardenas; add to this at least 40 years of sustained, spectacular growth at the annual rate of 6%. When economic crisis put an end to expansion in 1982, the compact was broken and the other, deeper reason for change emerged. This was the appearance of new, modern social forces at all levels of Mexican society: middle class, bureaucrats, technocrats, businessmen, workers, rural associations, students, intellectuals,women and a young, renewed group of army officers and clergy.