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Next Step : New Congress Has an Image Problem : Mexicans hope politics will be more open now, but old ways die hard.


MEXICO CITY — The Congress that will be seated Thursday was expected to have a higher profile than previous legislatures, providing lively debate and generating proposals as part of the political diversity and democratic reform that political leaders had promised.

But the legacy of the last legislature, which officially retired Monday, is a reminder of the immense difference between Mexico's Congress being a forum for discussion and being a truly independent branch of government.

The outgoing Congress was at center stage in the investigation into this country's second major assassination in six months--the murder of Francisco Ruiz Massieu, who had been designated speaker of the new Chamber of Deputies. He was shot to death in what increasingly is being portrayed as a plot hatched by an outgoing committee chairman and his legislative cronies.

The attorney general had asked lawmakers to revoke the immunity from prosecution of a congressman suspected in the case, a process that would have required a congressional inquiry into his conduct. A hearing was scheduled, and deputies prepared for the limelight.

Then, the day before the hearing date, word came down from the headquarters of the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI: Congress should bow out of the investigation, and the Chamber of Deputies should grant the suspected congressman a leave, thus removing his immunity without an inquiry.

After an emotional four-hour debate, the Chamber of Deputies' most powerful committee seemed ready to rebel by rejecting that plan.

"In my conscience as a legislator, and trying to be loyal to the man--my boss, my friend, Francisco Ruiz Massieu--I have decided to vote against the leave of absence," Florecio Salazar, a deputy from the slain man's home state of Guerrero, told the committee. After his speech, Salazar broke into tears.

But after 20 minutes of arm-twisting by PRI congressional leaders during a recess, discipline was enforced. The committee relinquished the chamber's right to police its own members.

"Clearly, various PRI-istas were ready to vote 'no,' but they tightened the screws," said Sen. Porfirio Munoz Ledo, chairman of the leftist opposition Democratic Revolutionary Party.

That display of party discipline does not bode well for attempts to create an independent Congress with a PRI majority, analysts said. "This was an exhibition of the old system of party control--crude and primitive," Munoz said.

Reformist members of the PRI acknowledge privately that they will have a hard time persuading party stalwarts to loosen control, even of their own members, much less allowing the opposition more say.

However, they still plan to try.

"We have to make the Congress the forum for discussing the national agenda, instead of the Zocalo," the capital's main plaza and site of daily protests, said Oscar Levin Coppel, leader of the city's 40-member PRI delegation.

PRI members and right-wing opposition National Action Party, or PAN, officials were less than eager to respond to requests for interviews about the new legislature. "All of the deputies are reluctant to talk," said one aide, who, like many of those interviewed, agreed to speak only on a pledge of anonymity.

That reticence contrasts sharply with the campaign rhetoric of the two parties in the weeks before the Aug. 21 federal elections.

While he was campaigning, Fernando Solana, a former Cabinet minister who is expected to be majority leader in the Senate, told reporters: "I believe the Congress will become a political space worthy of participation, that this will be a new Senate. If not, I would have had no interest in participating."

He spoke of the need for a balance of powers, which a more vital legislature could provide. He even agreed with the blunt assessment of PAN Senate Minority Leader Gabriel Jimenez that "the executive branch has been the strongest to the detriment of the other branches of government."

"Strong presidential powers used to serve us well, but this is a different era in history," Solana said. "For the country to function well, we need a better balance of powers."

A PRI majority in Congress already made that possibility less likely, said Ana Lilia Cepeda, an incoming deputy for the Democratic Revolutionary Party. "We lost the opportunity to make the Chamber (of Deputies) a counterweight to the other branches of government," she said.

But more devastating than the election is the loss of prestige the Congress has suffered in recent weeks, she said. As more attention focused on the Chamber of Deputies, more citizens became aware of legislative traditions such as "The Bronx." Deputies who sit in the section by that name come mainly to wave banners and shout down opposition speakers, she said.

Citizens have even begun to sarcastically dub congressional representatives diputaditos, little deputies.

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