His economic reforms aren't matched by political reform

Mexico's Salinas, A Year Later

By , Andrew Reding is a senior research fellow of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs.

THE first year in office for Mexican President Carlos Salinas de Gortari has been characterized by a series of bold actions. He has dismantled and sold state enterprises, and he has arrested corrupt union leaders, stock market executives, customs authorities, and drug kingpins. All this has been widely interpreted as signaling a wholesale reform of Mexican political and economic life. Comparisons with Mikhail Gorbachev's perestroika and glasnost have become common. Yet from most indications to date, it is clear that a more apt analogy might be drawn to China's paramount leader Deng Xiaoping.

While Deng carried out far-reaching changes in the Chinese economy, Mr. Gorbachev moved cautiously on the Soviet economy. Conversely, Gorbachev carried out fundamental political reforms, while Deng strictly limited dissent and repressed demands for democracy.

Like Deng, Mr. Salinas has moved to restructure Mexico's economy, while he has just as firmly limited the development of Mexican democracy. While forging an entente with the right-wing National Action Party (PAN), Salinas has repressed the country's largest opposition party, the center-left Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), led by Cuauhtemoc Cardenas.

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The contrasting treatment accorded friend and foe was starkly exposed in last July's simultaneous elections in the states of Baja California Norte and Michoacan. In both states, opposition parties documented clear triumphs over the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI).

Yet only in Baja California did Salinas direct the PRI authorities to recognize the victory. In Michoacan, the PRI used its complete control of the electoral machinery to steal the election.

This dichotomous treatment reflects Mexican political realities. In the first place, the PAN fundamentally agrees with Salinas's economic policies; the PRD does not. More seriously, the PRD poses a direct threat to the hegemony of the PRI at the national level, drawing broad support from labor, the peasantry, lower-echelon government workers, and the intelligentsia.

But Salinas's problem goes deeper. His mandate is shaky. Though the PRI-dominated electoral authorities declared him the winner of the 1988 presidential race with slightly over 50 percent of the vote, opposition tallies showed him trailing Mr. Cardenas by 40 percent to 36 percent, with 55 percent of the vote counted. The government has steadfastly refused to disclose results from the remaining 45 percent of precincts.

Free and fair elections in central and southern Mexico would inevitably lead to statewide wins by the PRD, as in Michoacan; and the PRD has pledged electoral reforms that would end the PRI's ability to rule through fraud.

The government fears a ``domino effect'' and has accordingly decided it cannot afford to concede any state election to the PRD. Similarly, at the national level, the PRI has been unwilling to discuss the PRD's proposal for an independent federal electoral commission, similar to those existing in Costa Rica and Venezuela. Instead, it has traded recognition of a PAN victory in remote Baja California for PAN acquiescence to a series of constitutional amendments designed to guarantee the PRI majority control of Congress.

Likewise, Salinas has been unwilling to allow union democracy. Though he dismissed corrupt leaders of the oil workers, teachers, and musicians unions, he replaced them with new bosses loyal to him and to the PRI. He is concerned, justifiably, that independent unions would link up with the PRD and obstruct economic reform.

Inevitably, this has meant that Salinas has had to resort to the implicit threat of greater repression. And the persuasion has not been merely verbal. Dozens of PRD organizers and supporters have been murdered in the past year and a half, beginning with the still unsolved assassination of Cardenas campaign director Francisco Ovando. Not one murderer has been brought to justice.

However salutary some of the reforms being carried out by President Salinas, these should not blind us to his denial of genuine democracy and to his repression of Mexico's primary opposition party.

A lesson can be learned from our experience with Deng Xiaoping, who was similarly blessed with a ``see no evil'' image in the US before this summer's tragic events, or with Panama's Manuel Noriega, whose electoral frauds were overlooked by Washington as long as he was seen as an ``intelligence asset.'' If President Bush can now routinely insist that ``the will of the Panamanian people will be respected,'' why not the will of the Mexican people?

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