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Next Step : Democracy Poised to Win in Mexico : A reformed Congress will likely clip the wings of any president.


MEXICO CITY — Almost unnoticed in the final blitz of rallies, opinion polls and punditry surrounding Mexico's most hotly contested presidential elections in six decades was this prediction by author Carlos Fuentes:

"Mexico will have a bad president, with a good government. . . . He will be a little crippled, because of the way in which he will be elected, a bit one-armed, because of the composition of the Congress (that will be elected the same day), and therefore he will only be able to govern by negotiation."

That, in fact, is among the few shared truths in what promises to be Mexico's least predictable and yet most democratic national elections of this century. Sunday's electoral showdown is an experiment in pluralism, pegged at a cost of $2 billion by outgoing President Carlos Salinas de Gortari, that politicians and analysts agree almost certainly will chart a more democratic course for this nation of 92 million as it navigates through endemic poverty, elitist wealth, massive unemployment and potential social unrest.

Unprecedented in the uncertainty of its outcome after 65 consecutive years of rule by a single, monolithic political force, the heated and costly campaign for the presidency, Congress and two state governorships already has built several key pillars for fundamental democractic change.

Eight independent political parties--the largest number ever--are competing for power with the long-ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). The PRI-ruled government has spent $730 million on a state-of-art, computerized voter-registration and identification system that has been embraced by all but one of those parties. The government also will permit international observers and a U.N. team of experts to monitor the vote independently for the first time. And each of the three leading presidential candidates has, as a campaign centerpiece, shared commitments to a major overhaul of Mexico's often-corrupt and traditionally authoritarian political system.

The most prominent of those promised reforms are the candidates' vows of power-sharing in the omnipotent executive branch.

The ruling party's candidate, 42-year-old Ernesto Zedillo, who has posted a commanding lead in opinion polls commissioned largely by international banks and other institutions that prefer the PRI, has vowed to consider members of the opposition for his Cabinet if he wins. His leading challenger, 53-year-old Diego Fernandez de Cevallos of the center-right National Action Party (PAN), has made a similar public pledge. Cuauhtemoc Cardenas, who many believe was cheated out of the presidency through fraud in the 1988 elections, has made no such public vow, but supporters of his center-left Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD) said they expect some level of power-sharing if Cardenas surges from his third-place position in the polls to win.

But there are several less obvious but potentially more far-reaching reforms put in place by Salinas that will kick in with almost immediate effect after the elections. And, of those, the most dramatic are changes in the size and composition of the Congress. It is these changes that Fuentes and other respected Mexican analysts have concluded--barring civil war or massive Election Day fraud--inevitably will propel Mexico into a new era of lively, although potentially turbulent, democracy.

In short, those analysts say, no matter which of the three leading presidential contenders is elected to lead the nation into the 21st Century this Sunday, this experiment in pluralist democracy is almost certain to transform the internal balance of power here.

And it will do so, they say, by shattering the traditional role of Mexico's Chamber of Deputies and its Senate, both historically rubber-stamp bastions of a president handpicked by the ruling PRI.

Overnight, the 500-seat Chamber of Deputies, which will be elected under a new proportional representation system that precludes a two-thirds majority for any party, will become a far more autonomous political force, according to independent and ruling party analysts.

The Senate will double in size to 128 seats, many of which will go to the opposition. And both houses are expected to become far more free-wheeling marketplaces of power, in which the PRI will be unable to alter the nation's constitution as it has with abandon in the past.

Under the constitution, the Congress does have extensive powers of checks and balances. It just never has chosen to exercise them. And under the new rules of the game, the opposition and ruling party alike agree that Mexico's political landscape is bound to resemble more the U.S.-style balance of power between the legislative and executive branches.

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