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Political Mess in Mexico--Is This Any Way to Run a Democracy?

Elections: Voters can only feel sad and discouraged when they see the bad behavior of their party leaders.

April 05, 1999|SERGIO MUNOZ | Sergio Munoz is a Times editorial writer

As Mexico moves on with its sometimes traumatic transition to democracy, there are worrisome signs that disarray in its three chief political parties is lowering the already dismal expectations most Mexicans have in their political process.

The messy infighting that marked efforts to select the new president of the Institutional Revolutionary Party or PRI this week, coupled with a fraud-ridden internal election earlier in the leftist Democratic Revolution Party or PRD, have left many Mexicans wondering if any of their politicians know how to run a real democracy.

Both the PRI and PRD elections were touted as unprecedented exercises in democracy. Yet, both parties staged farces that were pale imitations. Given the cynicism most Mexicans feel about their government, that might seem like no big deal. But this kind of behavior could discourage voter participation in the crucial presidential election set for 2000.

Of the two elections, less was expected of the PRI. That old party is widely regarded as corrupt and incapable of redemption. In the old days, Mexico's president would simply name his party chief and be done with it, leaving the PRI's executive council to rubber-stamp his choice.

This time around, President Ernesto Zedillo first quietly engineered a change of the guard in the leadership, then signaled who he wanted as party president. The council voted with only one candidate on the ballot. It was a charade.

Yet the nationwide election to select new leadership for the PRD may have been even worse. Even before the PRD ballots were officially counted, two of the candidates had declared themselves winners. Each accused the other of fraud. The list of alleged electoral irregularities was all too familiar: An altered electoral roll in which the names of four of the main candidates didn't appear, polling stations in which more than 100% of the voters cast ballots, vote buying, voter intimidation, stolen ballot boxes, etc. After an internal investigation revealed electoral irregularities at more than a quarter of PRD polling stations, the party on Thursday annulled the election.

Ironically, it is precisely the type of corrupt electoral conduct the PRD denounces when it contests a PRI election. It makes one wonder how the PRD can claim to offer a real alternative for political change. It's an echo of Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa's novel, "The Leopard," whose main character says, "We must change everything so that everything stays the same."

Of course, the fact that every one of the four PRD candidates who have won a governorship since 1997 were former PRI members already leaves Mexicans to think that the PRI and the PRD are two sides of the same coin. "The twin brothers," was how a Mexican political scientist characterized them.

There is a third alternative in Mexican politics: the rightist National Action Party. Yet fractures are beginning to appear even within the normally peaceful and conservative PAN. In all fairness, PAN conducted its election of a new president in a sharp, honest and efficient way just two weeks ago. But there is a potentially messy confrontation looming between two of its top leaders, the popular governor of Guanajuato, Vicente Fox, and PAN's 1994 candidate, Diego Fernandez de Cevallos.

The problem with all this political restiveness is that it is happening in a country that is immersed in a series of crises that reveal an enormous institutional frailty. Mexicans are increasingly fearful of a seemingly uncontrollable spread of violence that is sometimes political and sometimes criminal. Many Mexicans fear walking the streets of cities and towns. Drug gangs and other forms of organized crime bribe their way to the top of the political hierarchy. And scores of armed groups roam southern states like Chiapas and Guerrero, kidnapping and killing innocent victims in the name of revolution or the law.

Meanwhile, a new, more democratic Mexican Congress has proven incapable of reaching even the most basic agreements to keep the country running. With its present configuration, nearly 30% for each party in the Chamber of Deputies, the lower house can effectively paralyze government throughout the country.

Spain's transition from a dictatorship to a full-fledged democracy in the 1970s should serve as a blueprint for Mexico's transition. To achieve it, the political, social and economic Spanish elites reached a consensus that helped them find common ground. Mexico should do likewise. The Mexican pact should include guarantees for basic public safety, a commitment to a free-market economy, a determination to achieve a democratic and transparent rule, a will to strengthen an independent judiciary system and a conviction to uphold the rule of law.

It's not asking too much of Mexico's political elite to put an end to the infighting and work toward building a consensus.

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