Mexico Congress opens amid signs of persistent political strife

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Nearly two months after Mexicans voted in their most controversial elections ever, dark clouds still obscure the political horizon as President Miguel de la Madrid prepares to deliver his final State of the Union speech today. For days Mexico has teetered on the brink of a constitutional crisis, as a deadlocked Electoral College struggled to ratify the newly elected Chamber of Deputies. As the legal deadline approached late Tuesday night, the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) averted the impasse by pushing through the final approvals.

But the angry political opposition abstained from the voting, complaining that the PRI used its automatic majority to railroad the procedures and override all opposition charges of fraud. The final tally, which gave the PRI 261 of the 500 congressional seats, is a ``monument to illegality,'' it said.

In a country where the octopus-like PRI has ruled without a hitch for nearly six decades, such a confrontation is troubling for the short-term future of both the ruling party and United States-Mexican relations.

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``The whole process is a watershed,'' says one senior US official who specializes in Mexico. ``Heretofore, it's been nearly automatic. But now each painful step in this complex Latin process has a new meaning.''

``This could be seen as an acceleration of the political evolution sorely needed in Mexico,'' says the official, suggesting that the damaging elections may force the ponderous authoritarian system to become more open and democratic. ``But in order to make it so, you have to get through a short and medium term which is full of obstacles and mine fields.''

Indeed, several Mexican analysts and US scholars say that both the US and the PRI will need to spend much of the next year tiptoeing through the mine fields, negotiating their positions, policies, and power with the resurgent opposition, especially the new, left-leaning National Democratic Front (FDN).

The abstention of the FDN and the right-wing National Action Party raises questions over whether they will boycott the new legislature and jeopardize the traditional Mexican political consensus. It also sets the stage for this month's battle over the ratification of Carlos Salinas de Gortari, the PRI candidate who won the presidential election with 50.4 percent of the vote. FDN candidate Cuauht'emoc C'ardenas, who officially won 31 percent, has also claimed victory. The PRI's congressional majority makes Mr. Salinas's ratification nearly inevitable.

As the opposition nears the end of its legal rope, the nonstop protests of the past two months show no sign of abating. Marches and demonstrations were planned for yesterday. Opposition leaders hinted they would walk out in protest at the President's speech today.

It's not clear how far the opposition will push their protest. As one analyst put it, ``A lot of gasoline has been poured, so all it takes is one guy with a match.''

At the very least, the strong leftist showing at the polls and protest marches will likely weaken the rule of the forthcoming Salinas administration. Analysts say that in order to survive politically, Salinas will have to make some visible concessions that don't endanger the program of economic restructuring he implemented as budget minister. It's a political reality even his closest advisers admit.

Concessions on such issues as drugs and the debt could damage US-Mexico ties at a time of traditional uncertainty as both nations inaugurate new presidents.

But the main road to political stability is economic growth. Since the election reflected widespread frustration not only with the closed political system but with declining living standards, Salinas now has to deliver economic growth quickly to save himself politically, says one Mexican analyst. But there's a potential catch.

``The political pressure may not provide the time for an economic recovery,'' says the US official. ``That's the danger.''

Jane Bussey contributed to this story from Mexico City.

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