Return of the Latin populist

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"Stick it to the system" is the sanitized version of one of many crude slogans used by Roberto Madrazo in his bid for the Nov. 7 presidential nomination of Mexico's ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). This infuriates President Ernesto Zedillo and his Ivy League-trained advisers.

But such vulgarities delight blue-collar workers, shantytown dwellers, low-paid bureaucrats, and others whose paychecks have shrunk as technocrats have opened Mexico's economy to global competition. Indemerc-Lou Harris pollsters awarded Mr. Madrazo 40 percent to Labastida's 29 percent after the Sept. 8 candidate's debate in Mexico City.

Savaging neoliberalism may stir up grass-roots voters. But Madrazo's virulence could boomerang on his party and impede Zedillo's successor from uplifting the very people cheering the antiestablishment diatribes.

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Madrazo's approach mimics that of two other Latin American populists who've swept to power with rhetoric - and actions - and raises questions about the future of democracy in the region.

The unknown agronomist Alberto Fujimori in 1990 beat a neoliberal under the banner of "Work, Honesty and Technology." As Peru's president, he has used public outrage at "the little white ones" (the elite) and a crippling blow against Sendero Luminoso guerrillas to muster mass support. Now he's priming the economic pump to pull the nation out of recession in hopes of winning a third term next April.

In December, Venezuelans elected coup-meister Hugo Chvez as chief executive. Known as El Comandante, the retired paratrooper pledged to "fry the heads" of the "corrupt political elite who turned the presidential palace into a whorehouse." This mordant iconoclasm - manifest in the current no-nonsense rewrite of the nation's Constitution - excites the unemployed. But his autocratic style raises investors' hackles as oil-dependent Venezuela faces a shrinking GDP amid a 25 percent inflation rate.

Unlike genuine outsiders Mr. Fujimori and Mr. Chvez, Mexico's Madrazo grew up within the system. His father was a reformist PRI president. And young Madrazo has served as a party operative, congressman, senator, and governor.

His political pedigree aside, Madrazo has turned shin-kicking of fellow PRI members from an art form into an exact science. He scorned Zedillo's demand that he leave office after it was revealed Madrazo spent $70 million in his 1994 campaign for the governorship of the state of Tabasco - when the legal spending limit was just over $1 million.

In addition, Madrazo excoriated former government secretary Francisco Labastida, his major competitor for the PRI brass ring, as Zedillo's "handpicked" "neoliberal" toady. He has courted new power contenders like evangelicals, anathema to PRI bigwigs and Roman Catholic bishops. And he has blasted presidential efforts to open the capital-starved electricity and petroleum industries to foreign entrepreneurs.

"Don't worry about Roberto's tactics," one of his aides assures me. "He's extremely pro-business, but he's got to play to the cheap seats to thwart the bosses' assistance to Labastida."

As a state executive, Madrazo did open trade offices abroad, tirelessly hawk Tabasco products via the North American Free Trade Agreement, and welcome new investment to the state. But his relentless harangues reinforce the man-in-the-street's craving for a savior who can cure a regime depicted as rotten to the core. Corruption, violence, narco-crime, poverty, and unemployment abound here. Yet Madrazo's broad condemnations sharpen voter cynicism.

Even worse, they obscure the incumbent's achievements, which include replacing the presidential custom of handpicking his successor with an open primary. Zedillo has expanded press freedom, reformed the national pension program, privatized railroads, airports, and ports, and shifted social spending to states. He's lifted the country out of a recession, spurned budget deficits, amassed $30 billion in reserves, and crafted a plan to prevent a financial crisis like the ones afflicting the last four transfers of presidential power.

Madrazo's populism could enable him to defeat the moderate, centrist Labastida. If, in the process, Madrazo discredits Zedillo's impressive initiatives, capital will flee the country, enhancing prospects for an opposition triumph in the mid-2000 general election.

Moreover, persistent denigration of market-focused policies will make it difficult for the next president to convince the public and Congress of the imperative for outside capital in oil and electricity. The sustained development that will uplift the millions of Mexicans applauding Madrazo can't happen without modernization of the energy sector.

In the final two months of the contest, Madrazo should trade crass broadsides for responsible proposals. Otherwise, he may undercut the legitimacy of the government he seeks to head.

*George W. Grayson teaches government at the College of William & Mary, in Williamsburg, Va.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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