Why Zedillo's 'Pass the Buck' Approach Isn't Working

Nobody's perfect. The Monitor made some editorial mistakes when it published my last column, "Can Mexico Become a Multiparty Democracy?" Oct. 6.

The column was faxed to the Monitor in Boston in mid-September. By the time it was scheduled to run, a new ingredient had surfaced: Mexico's president, Ernesto Zedillo, was about to make a state visit to Washington. Therefore, the editor made a decision to link the column to the trip by adding a paragraph. The new text was supposed to have been faxed to me for my comments and approval but, in an uncharacteristic bureaucratic mix-up, it wasn't - and the following appeared:

"Mexico's president, Ernesto Zedillo, who arrives in Washington to meet with President Clinton next week, has diligently pursued democratic reform of this creaking (political) system since his election last December. Despite a troubled first nine months in office, he continues this reform agenda...."

The presidential election was last Aug. 21; Mr. Zedillo took office in December. I would not have said that Zedillo has diligently pursued democratic reform. That might be the conventional wisdom in the United States, but it is certainly not my opinion.

I wrote only that he has "promised democratic reform." There isn't any evidence that Zedillo has a "reform agenda." Frankly, we would love to see such an agenda.

The US impression comes from Zedillo himself, who talks a good game. When Zedillo says, as he did at the White House on Oct. 9, "It is good for Mexican democracy that the Mexican president does not want to make all the decisions," that sounds fine. What he refers to is his determination that the legislature, and not the executive, should take the initiative in drafting electoral, political, and media reforms. What isn't well known in the US, however, is the nature of the Mexican legislature and how easily its actions - and inactions - are manipulated by the president and the ruling party (PRI).

Last year's clean-on-the-surface but patently unfair elections ensured there would be an overwhelming PRI majority in both houses of Congress. Since under the Constitution there is no reelection, these legislators owe their political futures to the president and the party.

As a rule, political parties in power do not willingly self-destruct. So why should PRI legislators, who are not answerable to constituents, hurry their own demise? There is no incentive for them to agree to changes in the status quo, and it is unrealistic to expect them to do anything other than drag their feet when debating reform.

Make no mistake about it. If there were the sweeping reforms that are needed, the PRI would lose every important election. The only reasons it has kept power since the allegedly fraudulent election of 1988 are its use of public funds to spend up to 50 times what the opposition can on campaigns, electoral rules that blatantly favor the PRI, and favored treatment by an oligopoly TV ownership determined to keep power where it is. Nor should if be forgotten that Zedillo is a part of this system. He has benefited from it to the extent that he refuses to divulge his financial net worth (as opposition Congress members of the Democratic Revolutionary Party have done).

Zedillo knows that without his leadership, the PRI-dominated legislature would likely block the 10 key reforms already proposed jointly by the main opposition parties. He knows that only he, as president, has the traditional authority to insist on reform.

Therefore, it is either naive, unrealistic, or ingenious of him to pass the buck to the legislative branch, which has insufficient staff, little experience in legal drafting, and almost no history of bipartisanship. Much more than in the US, Mexican bills are initiated by the executive and sent to Congress. Why should Zedillo change standard procedure now? It looks like he's stalling.

For Zedillo to prove otherwise might not be easy, even if he truly wants democratization. Recent history has shown that his personal involvement could be physically dangerous, as it was for his fellow, would-be PRI reformers, the then-1994 presidential candidate and the party secretary, who publicly espoused sweeping reforms and were both assassinated last year - acts many believed were ordered by hard-liners.

If Zedillo shows his bravery with real commitment to democratization, however, he would have the vast majority of the Mexican people as his allies. To be effective, he must take the initiative and work together, both publicly and privately, with the major party leaders to hammer out what everyone knows to be necessary.

Richard Seid

Mexico City

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