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The James Carville of Mexico's Left Making Political Headway

October 12, 1997|Andrew Reding | Andrew Reding, an associate editor of Pacific News Service, directs the North America Project, a joint venture of the World Policy Institute in New York and the Bay Area Institute in San Francisco

The new point of convergence, on the center-left, was formalized by the PRD's becoming a full member of the Socialist International in September 1996. In so doing, it identified itself as a social democratic party, aligning itself with the French Socialists and British New Labor, both of which have similarly scored major electoral victories after redefining their mission.

Like Tony Blair's New Labor and Lionel Jospin's Socialist Party, Lopez Obrador's PRD is pragmatic. It supports market economics, but with the proviso that the state has a responsibility to ensure that market mechanisms are serving the greater public good. It supports decentralization of power, provided that measures are taken to reduce regional disparities, such as the poverty that afflicts southern Mexico.

With the PRD's increased pragmatism and electoral success, however, has come a new danger. As the PRI disintegrates, more and more of its state and local leaders are switching party allegiances. Many are doing so more out of opportunism than principle. In so doing, they bring along many of the old vices: graft, patronage, nepotism, padded expense accounts.

To address this problem, Lopez Obrador is trying to inculcate a new political morality. He has reduced the salaries of party leaders, barred them from using luxury hotels and restaurants, limited foreign travel to essential purposes and to two persons per trip. He has also stunned the political establishment with calls for public officials to stop keeping mistresses. Yet, the challenge Lopez Obrador faces in reforming a political culture that has never had an effective system of checks and balances remains daunting. Ultimately, his ability to sell the PRD to the public as a viable political option will depend on the performance of the new officeholders he helped get elected.

Another potential problem for the PRD is its dependence on Lopez Obrador. Just as it is impossible to conceive of New Labor enjoying its spectacular success without Blair, the PRD is similarly indebted to Lopez Obrador. Recognition of his exceptional organizing skills is what propelled him from party leader in a small backwater state to the landslide choice for party president. If anything should happen to him before he is able to institutionalize his party reforms, all bets are off.

For the time being, however, the rise of the PRD as an increasingly coherent, well-defined political party capable of meeting the challenges of leadership is a signal that Mexico's transition to democracy is working. The country already has a viable alternative to the right of center, the National Action Party (PAN), which closely trails the PRD in number of seats in the Chamber of Deputies. In the words of Vicente Fox, PAN governor of the state of Guanajuato and a leading prospect for his party's presidential nomination in the year 2000, "Under the intelligent leadership of Lopez Obrador, the PRD is finding its true standing as a political party." One could hardly think of a better omen for the evolution of a democratic and parliamentary ethos than this tribute from a political opponent.

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