Mexico: On Democracy's Fringes

In the aftermath of elections, Mexicans await reforms in the ruling party, the media, and state government

CARINA VASQUEZ ROCHA remembers thinking ``this is the way democracy is supposed to be'' when a discussion among university friends, before last month's presidential vote, revealed a nearly equal distribution of support for the three major candidates.

But Ms. Vasquez, a business administration student in Cuernavaca, Mexico, who supported conservative opposition candidate Diego Fernandez de Cevallos, also speaks of her disappointment that more Mexicans were not ready to try ``an alternative to the PRI,'' or the Institutional Revolutionary Party, the state party that has held power here since 1929.

PRI candidate Ernesto Zedillo Ponce de Leon won the election with just under half of all votes cast.

``I don't know if Mexicans were afraid of change or if they really want six more years of the PRI,'' she says, referring to the length of the presidential term. ``But it seems we have to wait six more years before we really experience democracy.''

Although Mexico's Aug. 21 elections had been dubbed by many national and international observers as the test of this country's transition to democracy, what the vote revealed was a country still at the outset of its separation from an ingrained state-party system.

While most Mexican political specialists agree the elections were the most successful in the country's history - in terms of fairness and turnout - they say Mexico still has a long way to go before it can call itself a true democracy.

With these elections, ``we knocked at [democracy's] door, but we still haven't gone in,'' says Jose Luis Reyna, provost of College of Mexico. ``Not yet.''

Perhaps the most encouraging change from past presidential elections was the high turnout. With new electoral laws promising impartial election organization and vote tabulation, 77 percent of eligible Mexicans voted - sharply up from the 40 to 50 percent who voted in recent elections. ``For the first time we voted as citizens,'' Mr. Reyna says.

Still, several key changes will have to take place before Mexico becomes a democracy, analysts agree:

* Most important, a ``divorce'' must take place between the state and the PRI. Despite some major cleaning up, Mexico's electoral system still suffers from what political consultant Alfonso Zarate Flores calls ``structural fraud,'' whereby the PRI benefits from the weighty support of government and labor unions.

* The PRI itself must become more democratic, most notably by opening up the process of selecting candidates for federal and state posts.

* Mexico, already nominally a federal republic, must pursue reforms that offer more than lip service to the separation of powers, and that devolve more power to the states.

* And the electronic media, especially television, must become a truly independent and objective player in the democratic process.

``We still have a long way to go in developing the principle of the counterweight,'' Reyna says.

The need for change within the electronic media points out that the transition to democracy is not only up to the government, but private and civil society as well.

During the recent campaign, even a casual observer could pick up the PRI bias of the privatized Televisa network - watched by 80 percent of Mexicans. In one particular case, a radio reporter was fired by his station for refusing to stop covering one of the candidates, which resulted in heated debate in the Congress.

How fast the needed changes are likely to happen - or just how fast Mexicans really want them to occur - is open to question. As respected journalist Lorenzo Meyer noted in his column in the Mexico City daily Reforma, these elections revealed just how deeply conservative Mexico is.

Mr. Zedillo won because Mexicans - already jarred by profound changes following adoption of the North American Free Trade Agreement and shaken by Mayan insurgency in the country's poor southeast - want stability.

``The world expected South Africa, but the [election] results were more reminiscent of El Salvador,'' Mr. Zarate says. He notes that contrary to expectations, the poor of El Salvador helped elect right-wing presidential candidate Armando Calderon Sol in April this year over a leftist candidate representing a coalition of former guerrillas.

``After years of civil war the [Salvadoran] poor cast what they considered a vote for stability,'' he says, ``and the poor did largely the same here, for the same reason.''

Still, analysts like Reyna and Zarate caution that ``stability'' does not equal a desire for the status quo. Mexicans, especially those in the middle classes, do want change - and will be watching to see that the reform process begun last year continues.

The best clue to prospects for democratic reform under Zedillo may come as he names his Cabinet before taking office Dec. 1. ``If he names people from the PRI old guard'' - the so-called dinosaurs - ``or with strong ties to the current party structure, it's a sign the transition will be slow,'' Reyna says.

Some analysts go further and conclude that democracy will not truly exist in Mexico until an opposition candidate wins the presidency.

``Separation of the PRI from the state will only be accomplished with blows from outside that bond,'' says Abelardo Villegas, writing in the weekly newsmagazine Proceso. ``The truth is that the unlinking will come when the president of the republic is not a PRIista.''

But such convictions - picked up by many younger, more impatient voters like Cuernavaca's Vazquez - may be overly pessimistic. Zarate notes that, just after the election, President Carlos Salinas de Gortari emphasized to the San Angel Group, an influential club of Mexican political leaders and intellectuals, that he is president until Dec. 1. And before then, more democratic reforms, including the strengthening of the legislative branch, could be introduced.

Others take as a good sign Zedillo's pledge to name ``the most qualified Mexicans'' - and not just PRIistas - to his Cabinet.

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