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THE WORLD : The Future of Mexico's Democracy Lies in Baja California : After ushering in reforms, the PAN, fresh from new victories at the polls, is in a good position to show Mexicans it can govern the nation.

August 20, 1995|Hugo Martinez McNaught | Hugo Martinez McNaught is professor of journalism at Universidad Iberoamericana

TIJUANA — In the last decade, Baja California has undergone enormous transformations. Long gone are the days of 1987, when little-known opposition Mayor Ernesto Ruffo Appel, driving his own truck, collected garbage at sunrise in Ensenada, his hometown. He wanted to prove that his party, the National Action Party (PAN), could really govern in Baja.

Ruffo was neither a savvy politician nor a seasoned public official. But he was determined--his motto was: "Yes, it can be done"--to succeed as the second opposition mayor in state history.

Happily for Ruffo, the Baja electorate was in a mood for change after decades of unfair elections, corrupt officials, one-party rule and economic crisis. In 1989, Baja California became the first state in Mexico's modern history to be controlled by an opposition party, the conservative PAN. For Mexico as a whole, it was a milestone: Democratization had begun.

Last Sunday, a photograph of a proud, confident Ruffo appeared on the front cover of Mexico's leading political weekly. Its headline: "Ruffo: The presidency in the year 2,000; 'Yes, it can be done.' "

Ruffo's optimism is shared by many Mexicans around the nation, including panistas and nonpartisans, who believe the PAN could conceivably defeat the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) in the next presidential elections.

What is referred to in Mexico as " territorio panista " has grown rapidly this year. The territory now extends to virtually all corners of Mexico. With four governors and 186 mayors, the PAN already governs 25.35% of the country's population. In addition, had the recent elections in the state of Yucatan been cleaner and fair, the PAN quite possibly would now be governing a fifth state.

There is, however, another good reason why Ruffo and other panista leaders are confident that they soon could be in a position to govern the country. For the first time in modern Mexico history, an opposition party (PAN) has won a state governorship in two consecutive elections. When he steps down as governor on Nov. 1, Ruffo will be replaced by another panista, Sen. Hector Teran Teran.

It is, of course, uncertain whether PAN can really win in the year 2000. Many of the main obstacles to fair presidential elections--privileged access to and control of the media by PRI, limited freedom of expression and no effective caps on campaign spending--remain. To assure more control over elections and greater political power, PAN first must win a majority of seats in Congress in 1997.

And Baja California could prove to be an important stepping stone to these national PAN aspirations.

On one hand, the state is now a national symbol. It has demonstrated to Mexicans nationwide that opposition parties, particularly the PAN, can govern. Baja residents, some of whom simply expected a more efficient and honest bureaucracy under Ruffo, agree. In a recent poll, 63% of the respondents awarded Ruffo good marks for decreasing corruption and making government more efficient.

On the other, Baja promises to lead the nation, at least for six more years, in implementing sweeping changes and reforms. Moreover, reforms introduced here could be contagious, especially in panista territories. As a result, the PAN might strengthen its popularity.

Baja California residents are again ready for change. Under Ruffo, few long-term reforms were instituted, with one notable--and consequential--exception. Baja California became the first state to organize its own elections, to issue voter ID cards--with a photo of the voter on each card--and, for last August's elections, to turn over control of the elections to nonpartisan citizens. As a result, elections are significantly cleaner, relatively competitive and peaceful.

But many structural reforms to move Baja toward an even more competitive electoral and democratic system are still pending. For example, some system of checks and balances in government is long overdue. It is urgent that both public and elected officials be accountable to the people they are supposed to serve or represent.

Teran's victory has opened the door for this and other reforms. And unlike Ruffo, he can count on a PAN-dominated state Congress. If the new governor keeps his campaign promises:

* Baja could become the first in the nation to allow residents to remove elected officials from power and hold plebiscites;

* The head of a governmental human rights commission would be elected by residents--a first;

* The powers of the governor would be reduced and transferred to municipal governments and Congress, which finally would be in a position to introduce or revise laws, as it is supposed to, and

* More regional decisions would be made in Mexicali, the state's capital, instead of Mexico City.

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