Don't Count PRI Out in Mexico's Elections

SPECULATION is building that 1994 is the year that Mexico's ruling party - the Institutional Revolutionary Party or PRI - will lose to one of several opposition parties and end its 65-year domination of the Mexican political scene. The speculation is built around the perception of the PRI's declining legitimacy, the emergence of popular opposition candidates on the right and left, the lingering tension fostered by the recent Indian uprising in Chiapas, and the shock waves sent throughout the country by the assassination of the PRI's hand-picked candidate, Luis Donaldo Colosio, in March.

The PRI may be struggling, but the opposition still lacks the strength to put the PRI out of business. There are many reasons why the August 1994 election in Mexico will not end the one-party-dominant system that has existed since 1929.

1. Broadly speaking, Mexicans are satisfied with their government. In a poll conducted by a Gallup affiliate in late 1993, 53 percent of the respondents said they were satisfied with their one-party-dominant democracy. This is a high level of satisfaction when compared with that of the publics in democracies such as Brazil, Venezuela, Argentina, and most of Central America.

2. Most Mexicans hold positive views of outgoing President Carlos Salinas de Gortari and how things are going in their country. In the same poll, 60 percent answered ``well'' when asked about the state of things in general.

3. When asked their opinion of the PRI, almost 70 percent of Mexicans gave favorable responses, compared with 47 percent favorable for the National Action Party and 32 percent for Lazaro Cardenas's Democratic Revolutionary Party. Despite setbacks - from the Chiapas uprisings and the death of its presidential candidate -

since the poll was taken, the PRI is in a strong position relative to its opposition. Any further stirrings by the Zapatistas in Chiapas will be likely to generate more support for the stability of the PRI.

4. Public concern over political corruption has failed to undermine the PRI, due to the relative success of economic reforms. According to Luigi Manzetti of the University of Miami's North-South Center, ``People are willing to tolerate corruption as long as an administration is at least able to bring economic stability and growth.'' Moreover, in contrast to previous Mexican presidents, Mr. Salinas maintained, in the minds of many citizens, a more ethical administration .

5. Most Mexicans have little understanding of the meaning of democracy in their country. In last year's Gallup-affiliate poll, when asked ``what is the first thing that comes to mind when democracy is mentioned,'' only 20 percent of the respondents said a ``government of the people'' or ``the right to vote in legal elections.'' More telling: One-third of the respondents, and half of those who were less educated, could think of nothing to describe a democracy.

6. PRI control over the media, particularly television, is a powerful factor in favor of the ruling party. Three out of four Mexicans depend on TV for their political news; those who are most uncertain about the meaning of democracy get their news from TV. This gives the PRI a greater opportunity to manipulate political issues to its advantage.

7. Enough political reforms have been adopted since the controversial election of 1988, when Salinas won with 50.74 percent of the vote. Despite the expansion in the powers of the Mexican presidency, the political opposition has gained considerable strength in the legislative Chamber of Deputies. This trend tends to deflate the image of the PRI as a ``dominant'' party.

8. Thousands of international observers will ``watch'' the elections. While this will reduce the chances of ballot-box fraud and previous electoral strategies by the PRI, it also could bolster the image of the PRI as an honest contender in the electoral contest. The last thing the PRI wants is a repeat of its narrow victory six years ago.

9. Mexican voters give Salinas high marks for his efforts to combat drug trafficking and corruption, privatize the economy, and engineer the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement. Thus, most of the salient issues in Mexican politics work in the PRI's favor.

10. The US will subtly back Salinas's successor by avoiding discussions of human rights abuses, electoral fraud, and political corruption in the weeks prior to the election.

The post-cold-war world has been hard on one-party-dominant systems in other parts of the world over the past five years. Democratization may be slowly eating away at the framework of authoritarianism in Mexico, but 1994 will not be the ``year of the opposition.'' 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@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.

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