Women Gain Ground In Mexican Politics

THE North American Free Trade Agreement has received more media attention in the US than any other issue concerning Mexico. Yet such a single-minded focus on the economy ignores the many important political changes occurring in Mexico today.

One especially significant change has been the entry of women into politics, once an exclusively male domain. Nowhere is this trend toward women's emerging political power more evident than in Mexico's southeastern state of Yucatan.

Both the governor of Yucatan and the mayor of Merida, the state's largest city and capital, are women. The mayor, Ana Rosa Payan, is also the PAN (National Action Party) candidate for governor in the upcoming Nov. 28 elections. Should she win, she would be the second woman to serve as state governor, following the current governor, Dulce Maria Sauri. Only two other Mexican states (Colima and Tlaxcala) have had women as governors. No state has had women succeed each other as governor.

The mayors of four other municipalities, including two of the state's largest cities (Tizimin and Progreso), are also women. Three of the 26 representatives in the state Congress are women. Ligia Cortez Ortega is the Chief Justice of the State Supreme Court; two of the other four justices are women.

For the November elections, the PAN has announced 20 women as mayoral candidates of Yucatecan towns and cities. Many women also serve as heads of state agencies or as party activists at the highest levels of policy formation.

How have Yucatecan women achieved such notable political success? Many have arrived at the center of state politics by working as long-time party loyalists within the PAN or the dominant Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). And party chiefs are beginning to recognize that women can be candidates, not just behind-the-scenes support staff.

Other factors also have helped women gain political prominence.

Until recently almost all elected officials were PRI and male. As a result, women candidates, especially from opposition parties, symbolize the greatest break from the politics of the past. Many observers say that aside from her widely recognized talents as a public servant, Mayor Payan was elected partly because she most represented change.

In the eyes of many Yucatecans, women represent a political alternative not only because of gender but also because women are commonly thought to represent a higher moral authority. And so as public servants, women are expected to be more honest, trustworthy, and service-oriented than men. As a result, when fraud, opportunism, and ineffectiveness are issues, women are likely to be sought as candidates to clean up government. Such has been the case in several Yucatecan towns where male mayors have either been removed from or voted out of office and replaced by women.

The PAN has been particularly active in seeking women to run for local office in Yucatan. Local PAN activists say that the party has chosen women as candidates because they represent change and the hope for better government.

PAN members also report, however, that it can be easier to recruit women; men fear that if they run as opposition candidates, the PRI-dominated government will retaliate by threatening their jobs or businesses.

Sometimes the PRI has sought to nullify their opposition's ``clean government'' women candidates by putting women from their own party in office. Some Yucatecans say that such a move by the PRI was in part responsible for the appointment of Governor Sauri as a counterpoint to Payan's election. Such countermoves obviously also increase the number of women in public service.

Finally, there seems to be a geometric effect in having women in political positions. Once in power, women inspire, serve as role models for, and appoint other women.

Beneath all of these factors is the subtle political awakening of Yucatecan women. There is no identifiable women's movement in the state. But many women are examining their political participation. With each new success of women in public life, Yucatecan women have cause to increase their political participation.

Some Yucatecan observers say that their state has become a laboratory for the political participation of women in Mexico. They may be right. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles we accept will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHELCSPS.COM.

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