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The Death Rattles of a Monopoly

September 29, 1996|Sidney Weintraub | Sidney Weintraub holds the William E. Simon chair in political economy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies

WASHINGTON — Last weekend's assembly of Mexico's Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) was not a made-for-televison event. Indeed, the deliberations exposed the raw feelings and frustrations of delegates in a way that neither of the two main U.S. presidential conventions did--or would dare to. The gathering represented party democracy in action--although that may be an oxymoron when discussing the PRI--and not public relations. One thing was clear: Technocrats, as opposed to party stalwarts, are no longer wanted.

There is no political party quite like the PRI. Every Mexican president since 1929 has been a member and, until a few years ago, so was every state governor. But this monopoly on power has ended; four of Mexico's current 31 governors are members of the main conservative opposition, the National Action Party (PAN). The mayor of the Federal District, the most populous jurisdiction in the country and the nation's capital, has always been appointed by the president and, as such, was always a priista. Next year, for the first time, a popular vote will decide the mayoralty, and polls show the PAN candidate is likely to win. Because of recent changes in federal electoral laws, the odds are good that the PRI will even lose next year's congressional elections and perhaps even the presidency in the year 2000.

The immediate reason why the PRI has lost its political monopoly is the dismal performance of the economy. Beginning in 1976, there has been an economic disaster about every six years, which coincides with the length of a presidential term. The crisis in 1982 was especially sharp; economic hardship lasted for about four years, during which time wages, adjusted for inflation, plummeted by 40%. Then, the mother of all collapses took place in 1995, when gross domestic product fell by 7%.

During the last 14 years of economic trial and tribulation, the presidency has been occupied by U.S.-educated technocrats, like Carlos Salinas de Gortari, who has a Ph.D. from Harvard, and Ernesto Zedillo, the current president, who has a Ph.D. in economics from Yale. Foreign investors and Wall Street gurus love the technocratic presidents. But among the general population of Mexico, there is little affection for them.

The 4,423 delegates at the PRI's 17th National Assembly were reacting to these multiple developments, but they were also selfishly promoting party regulars--themselves--for public office. Even though the Mexican economy is recovering from the catastrophe of '95, the deprivations of that year still reverberate loudly among the population. It was evident from the speeches and applause lines that delegates were nostalgic for the good old days, when the Mexican market was closed to imports and the state was the rector, the dominant actor, promoting economic activity.

The most important operational resolution emerging from the assembly was that future PRI candidates for president and state governor must have held elective office and have been party members for at least 10 years. There had been a tacit understanding that the operative conjunction was supposed to be or, but this was lost in the heat of the debate. Under these rules, none of Mexico's last five presidents would have been eligible--including Zedillo. If the Republican Party adopted similar rules, Dwight D. Eisenhower would not have been president.

The party assembly's other actions amounted to a mixed bag, including some that could be significant, while others mostly reflected sound and fury. The delegates, by unanimous voice vote, opposed privatizing 61 petrochemical plants now run by Pemex, the state oil monopoly. They debated expelling Carlos Salinas, now in self-imposed absence in Ireland, from the party, but the PRI president, Santiago Onate, used a parliamentary maneuver to prevent a vote. There was a vote against the doctrine of "social liberalism," which Salinas had promoted, and a pronounced preference for the old revolutionary slogans calling for defense of sovereignty and promotion of social justice. The delegates cheered greetings from "fraternal" delegates representing the Cuban Communist Party, the Farabundo Marti Liberation Front of El Salvador and Nicaragua's Sandinistas, but booed mention of the U.S. Democratic and Republican parties.

The assembly was unwilling to state clearly that a sitting president should have no voice in the choice of his successor, even though Zedillo has favored this kind of separation of party and government. The delegates denounced corruption, but left any action to be taken up to an internal party body. Talk about the fox guarding the hen house. At the end of the day, however, the delegates applauded Zedillo's closing speech.

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