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Vicente Fox's Election Is Just the Tip of the Iceberg

Commentary

January 14, 2001|RODERIC AI CAMP | Roderic Ai Camp, a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College, is the author of "Politics in Mexico: the Decline of Authoritarianism" (Oxford University Press, 1999)

The election of President Vicente Fox in Mexico has introduced some remarkable political changes that presage dramatic, long-term implications beyond this decade.

First, and most important, before last July's election, only 40% of Mexicans believed their country was a democracy. Immediately after the election, 63% described Mexico as a democracy, a whopping 50%-plus increase. This suggests that a specific candidate's electoral victory or failure six years hence might produce equally wide swings in voter support for the political model of democracy.

Second, Fox's background suggests that the political recruitment process has been permanently transformed. Most national politicians in Mexico have come from upper-middle class professional backgrounds, urban settings, specifically Mexico City, secular educational institutions and public careers, especially in the national bureaucracy. Fox comes from a ranching family, a provincial background, a Jesuit university and a business career as CEO of Coca-Cola of Mexico. Once he became politically active 10 years ago, he earned his reputation through elective office as a congressman and as governor of Guanajuato.

His career and the Cabinet choices he has made so far suggest that Mexico's new channels for political leadership are much more likely to be elective, provincial and local and through private professional institutions, including business and international agencies.

Third, party politics has changed. The Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, which ruled Mexico for seven decades, must totally renovate itself to survive, rebuilding its strength through grass-roots organizations and electoral successes rather than relying on its traditional linkage to and control over the state.

The National Action Party, or PAN, Fox's nominal party, also will have to change. Fox used PAN as a vehicle for his victory, but the crucial organizational element in his campaign was not PAN but the Amigos de Fox, a grass-roots organization that did not even exist before 1998. The success of Amigos de Fox demonstrates a changed setting in Mexican politics favorable to the creation and growth of citizen groups, a pattern that has been occurring since the mid-1980s. This is a positive outcome for democratic participation, although it adds to the complexity and difficulty of the policy process.

Finally, leaders of the Catholic Church, which paved the way for a Fox victory by teaching voting as a Christian responsibility, are delighted that Fox won a truly democratic election. But they also are the most vocal critics of the North American Free Trade Agreement, the support of which was a cornerstone of Fox's economic agenda. The church might well become an intense critic of Fox's macroeconomic policies if they fail to produce positive benefits for working-class families.

As a consequence of these changes, for the first time we can see that political process affects the political culture rather than political culture determining the characteristics of the process.

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