Mexican politics is bound to acquire new meaning for Americans, and take a jarring turn for Mexicans, now that millions of Mexican citizens living in the United States will get to vote, for the first time, in their homeland's next presidential election. Mexico's future will not only be contested in states where there are large concentrations of Mexican immigrants, but these voters may also decide who Mexico's next president will be.
To understand how this could happen, you have to follow the path that Mexico's three main political parties took to approve emigre voting. It is a tale of political intrigue reaching into the United States and involving the highest stakes of political power in Mexico.
Since the close and bitterly disputed 1988 presidential election, the left-leaning Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD) had demanded voting rights for emigrants. The ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) had stubbornly resisted granting such a franchise, until last spring, when it quietly--and unexpectedly--dropped its objections during closed-door electoral-reform negotiations.
The conservative National Action Party (PAN) went along with the deal as part of a sweeping electoral-reform package passed unanimously by the Mexican Congress last August. At the state and local levels, the PAN governs nearly one-third of the country and is favored by many to knock off the PRI in legislative elections next year and in the presidential contest in 2000.
Though initially suspicious of the left's motives in pushing for emigrant voting rights, the PAN eventually concluded that, given the chance, expatriate Mexicans would turn overwhelmingly against the PRI regime. After all, Mexican emigrants have been, in effect, expelled from their homeland by conditions the PRI government must answer for, PAN President Felipe Calderon has asserted.
Indeed, had Mexican emigrants been able to vote in 1988, they probably would have turned against PRI presidential candidate Carlos Salinas de Gortari, as did millions of Mexicans at home, and would have added to the record support won by the left-coalition candidate, Cuauhtemoc Cardenas. In that campaign's aftermath, Cardenas founded the PRD, and the new party organized an extensive network of cells throughout California, where he had campaigned and pushed for emigrant voting rights.
Responding to these signs of opposition strength across the border in California, the Salinas administration vigorously set out to create a new relationship with Mexico's emigre communities in the United States. At the center of its efforts was an expanded, activist role for Mexico's web of 40 consulates, augmented by the Foreign Ministry's new program for Mexican communities abroad.
The consuls suddenly became outspoken defenders of the rights and interests of Mexican citizens living in the United States; they boosted immigrant organizations and activities. The Mexican government funded new health and education services for its expatriates. Mexican governors began making regular trips north to meet with their respective emigre colonias, and they developed cooperative relationships with them. Communities back home have benefited from their joint projects.
These efforts have been much more than partisan fence-mending. Mexican officials, no doubt, are genuinely concerned with the welfare of their compatriots abroad. But, wittingly or not, they have laid the foundation for the PRI to overcome the PRD's support across the border.
Meanwhile, back home, the Salinas administration succeeded in undermining support for the left by initiating a huge anti-poverty program, which led to the PRD's collapse in the 1991 and 1994 elections. Similarly, the Mexican government easily outflanked and outspent the PRD in California and elsewhere in the United States, to the point that giving in to the PRD demand for emigrant voting became politically feasible. But there's more.
In his zeal to thwart the left, Salinas helped the PAN reclaim its place as Mexico's leading opposition party. Since 1989, the conservative party has won historic gubernatorial elections in four states and the mayoralties of nine of Mexico's 10 largest cities.
But as the conservatives gained political appeal in Mexico, they failed to compete on this side of the border with either the debilitated left or the ruling PRI. For this additional reason, embracing the emigres' right to vote was a shrewd step for the PRI to take in this year's critical round of electoral reform. In Los Angeles recently, the PAN's president acknowledged that his party has not even considered how to go about organizing Mexicans living in the United States. Among its rivals, the PAN alone lacks a northern strategy.