Mexico's Lost Chance For Democratization

The `ruling' party still controls the selection of a president

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RECENTLY Mexico's ``ruling'' party, the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), lost a golden opportunity to advance the democratization process within its ranks. It is fairly obvious that in choosing the PRI's presidential candidate for next August's elections, President Carlos Salinas de Gortari had narrowed the field to Mexico City's mayor, Manuel Camacho Solis, and the eventual choice, Luis Donaldo Colosio, the cabinet's Secretary for Social Development. From all indications, it was a tough call since both men seemed eminently qualified and both wanted the job. True to form, President Salinas made the choice himself on Dec. 8.

Instead of having the PRI selection announced as a certainty on Oct. 28, a far more democratic - and fairer - method was available. Even if Salinas judged that the party was not ready for a completely open selection process, he still had an option that would have satisfied his critics, both in the United States and Mexico, who say the democratization process is too slow: Mr. Colosio and Mr. Camacho could have been declared pre-candidates and been allowed to present their views in public. Then the PRI convention, which rubber-stamped Salinas' selection on Dec. 8, could have made its choice. (Voting for Colosio was done by a show of hands of all 6,000 delegates.) Having a single pre-candidate was a real disappointment to those who favored the North American Free Trade Agreement, thinking that its passage would accelerate Salinas' promise of democratization.

So Colosio has been named. But who knows of his political philosophy, or his concept of the issues facing Mexico, or his positions on them? Who can judge his decisionmaking ability or his capacity to withstand the pressures of the presidency? Whereas Camacho has shown he has the ability to govern, Colosio is untested in such a role. In the past, Colosio has been less than eloquent in public - to the extent that the president of the left-center Democratic Revolutionary Party, Porfirio Munoz Ledo, has accused him of never having spoken in the Senate chamber where he represented the state of Sonora. Salinas might think he knows Colosio's capacity and potential, but is it a wise political procedure for the country to leave it to the present chief executive to be the sole judge?

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One question is: Does any Mexican president really know enough about the ruling party candidate he chooses? Before the destape (or unveiling of the candidate), it was widely speculated that Salinas might choose Colosio because he would expect Colosio to continue his policies. But such reasoning goes against history. From Plutarco Elias Calles, who chose Lazaro Cardenas in 1934, former presidents have been surprised by the independence of their successors.

The main doubt, however, that touches at the heart of Mexico's political problems concerns the sincerity of the PRI's commitment to democratization. The PRI had a chance to become more democratic internally, but it chose its traditional ways. In spite of numerous editorials in the relatively free press decrying its dictatorial practices, the PRI seems impervious to criticism.

Why should the method of the PRI's nomination be of any concern? After all, if the Mexican people have the final say between several parties' candidates in next August's election, why should the process used to pick the standard-bearer by one party be worrisome? Simply because the PRI is not just any political party. Throughout the press, the PRI is known as the ``ruling'' or ``official'' party. It is the only party allowed to use the red, white, and green colors of the Mexican flag in its party emblem. It has been in power for so long that it almost completely controls the bureaucracy of the country - including the federal electoral mechanisms. Because of this overwhelming power and control, it is widely believed that the PRI will not allow itself to be beaten in the coming presidential election, no matter how the electorate really votes.

History is on the side of the skeptics, who point to the disputed last presidential election in 1988. Then, on election night with television coverage showing the PRI to be losing, a high government official appeared on TV claiming that the computer system was ``down'' but promising that all the votes would be openly and publicly counted in the future. Unfortunately, that never happened, and Salinas was declared the winner with slightly more than 50 percent of the vote. The envelopes containing the ballots were burned by the army in December 1991. Even the timing of the destruction points to PRI deviousness; the eradication of the evidence took place approximately three years after the election and three years before the next one - psychologically the right time to induce forgetfulness.

That the Mexican government will not allow international observers to monitor the coming election - citing a potential loss of sovereignty - shows that it has little intention of following democratic practices. How ironic that Salinas was eager to give up significant sovereignty with NAFTA. This selective sovereignty only heightens cynicism of the electoral process.

There is little doubt that Colosio will be Mexico's next president. It's too bad that his selection as the PRI's candidate could not have been achieved in a more democratic manner.

Mexicans' only hope is that he, as president, will change the system. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles 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@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.

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