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The Appeal of the Zapatistas : Rebels strike home with call for political reform

March 01, 1994

The Mexican government may be close to a peace agreement with rebels in Chiapas that could have positive ramifications not just for that impoverished southern state but for all of Mexico.

For the last week negotiators representing President Carlos Salinas de Gortari and the Zapatista National Liberation Front have been meeting in Chiapas, trying to reach an accord to end the armed rebellion, which has claimed more than 100 lives since it began Jan. 1. Many of the issues under discussion are unique to Chiapas, where a rural, heavily Indian population is locked in poverty stemming mainly from a near-feudal land ownership system.

However, one of the rebel demands has resonated even with urban Mexicans: The Zapatistas want a more responsive, truly democratic political system in Mexico. That has won them the support of intellectuals in Mexico City, business people in Monterrey and ranchers in northern Mexico. Just as important, it has won the Zapatistas support from political parties on both the left and right that have been frustrated for years over the stifling dominance of the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI.

The PRI has never lost a presidential election, and only rarely has it conceded defeat on the state or municipal level. That has led most Mexicans to cynically conclude that when the PRI can't win honestly, it simply steals elections. And even if that is not always true, the effect is to undermine faith in the political system.

In an effort to clean up the PRI's image at home and abroad, Salinas promised electoral reform before the presidential election next August. Although a few reforms were made, critics say they did not go far enough.

Now Salinas reportedly has decided to call a special legislative session, as early as this week, to present a new reform initiative. The package will include placing international election observers at polling stations, equal media access time for all political parties and putting the Federal Electoral Institute, which sets election rules and verifies all voting results, under nonpartisan control. Until now the institute has been controlled by the PRI.

Any one of these steps would be a noteworthy break with the past; for example, accepting international election observers would mean swallowing national pride. As a package, they are unprecedented and impressive.

Government sources deny that Salinas' reform proposals have suddenly been revived because of the Chiapas rebellion, but the timing cannot be a coincidence. It is most unfortunate that it took bloodshed to get political reform in Mexico moving again. But what's important is that the process has begun anew. This time it must not be stopped.

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