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PERSPECTIVE ON MEXICO : Hands-Off President Is in a Bind : In shedding the traditional role as head of his party, Zedillo has left local politicos to run amok.

June 11, 1995|WAYNE A. CORNELIUS | Wayne A. Cornelius is director of studies and programs in the Center for U.S.-Mexican Studies at UC San Diego.

Mexico held its cleanest-ever presidential election last August, under stringent new rules that made traditional forms of vote fraud much more difficult to commit. Exceptionally clean state and local elections were also held in February in Jalisco, and were won by the conservative National Action Party (PAN). Less than four months later, however, Mexico finds itself mired in yet another messy, potentially violent post-election conflict, in the southern state of Yucatan. Has nothing really changed? Yes and no.

Under President Ernesto Zedillo, even more than during the preceding administration, any strongly contested state election presents an opportunity for either a democratic advance or a step backward.

On May 28, Mexicans got both. The unchallenged election of the PAN's Vicente Fox to the governorship of Guanajuato effectively consolidated a competitive, two-party system in that important state. Meanwhile, Yucatan held a thoroughly old-style election, in which PAN gubernatorial candidate Luis Correa Mena may have been cheated of victory by a combination of outright fraud and grossly unfair (if not illegal) campaign practices. These included large-scale vote buying and various forms of intimidation, used with particular effect among economically desperate Indians in the state's rural areas.

PAN leaders have challenged results from more than one-fifth of the state's polling places, which account for more than twice the 22,000-vote margin of victory claimed by Victor Cervera Pacheco of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). But these complaints, however well documented, are unlikely to be accepted by a state elections commission constituted mainly of PRI sympathizers.

Previous presidents of Mexico could be the final arbiter of electoral results because of the formidable power they exercised as both president and head of the ruling party. Zedillo's predecessor, Carlos Salinas de Gortari, even caused the removal of several PRI governors whose victories he had endorsed just weeks before. Zedillo, however, has refused the mantle of party leader, a highly unorthodox position that enables entrenched state and local bosses to manipulate the PRI's nomination processes as they see fit.

If an incumbent president is unwilling or unable to use his powers as party leader to ensure fair and clean elections at the state and municipal levels, PRI candidates will be tempted to use the full panoply of bad old tricks--handouts, threats, improper use of government personnel and other resources--to gain election. Cervera, one of the PRI's most notorious "dinosaurs," is believed to have used manpower from the federal Agrarian Reform Ministry (which he headed under Salinas) in his campaign.

Despite Zedillo's cutoff of direct government subsidies to PRI operations, the Cervera machine in Yucatan had plenty of money for handouts and direct vote-buying. Where did it come from? Clearly, major loopholes in both federal and state electoral codes in the areas of campaign finance and media access must be closed to create a more level playing field for the opposition parties.

Old-style campaign tactics are still possible because the strict new laws governing the conduct of federal elections are not binding on state and local election authorities unless state legislatures vote to adopt the new standards. One key reason why the PAN was able to prevail in Guanajuato this year was that the elections were held under a state electoral code that had been reformed by an interim PAN state government, installed by Salinas after a fraud-ridden gubernatorial election in 1991. No such changes had been made in Yucatan's electoral law.

To those who have long argued that authoritarian presidential rule is the root of all evil in Mexican politics, the conflict in Yucatan should give pause. At this delicate and dangerous moment in Mexico's transition to a more competitive political system, a weak presidency could truncate democratization, leaving large parts of the country under the control of 1920s-style warlords, particularly old-guard PRI state governors.

Most PRI leaders in the states and municipalities have nothing to gain from further progress toward democracy. Not surprisingly, considering his repeated vows to separate himself from the PRI's internal affairs, Zedillo's control over the party machinery is very weak. Under these circumstances, any election closer than this year's contests in Jalisco and Guanajuato--both won by the PAN with overwhelming margins--will invite PRI skulduggery preceding the voting and post-election rebellion by local PRI militants if the federal authorities should try to nullify results favoring their party.

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