MEXICO underwent another test on July 12 of its ability to leave behind the old politics of one-party control. Gubernatorial elections were held in the states of Chihuahua and Michoacan, and while results may not be final yet, they indicate a mixed picture: The Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) of President Carlos Salinas de Gortari was closely challenged, but that doesn't mean the contests were completely fair.
Charges of voting "irregularities" are particularly loud in Michoacan, the Pacific coast state that has been a stronghold for the leftist Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD) of Cuauhtemoc Cardenas, who gave Mr. Salinas a close run for the presidency in 1988. PRD partisans claim the election was stolen from them. Many of the charges focus as much on the PRI's near monopoly of resources as on outright fraud.
Government financial and media resources are made available to PRI candidates, while their opponents have to get by on much less.
The Mexican system allows for public funding of candidates. The PRD campaign in Michoacan claimed to have spent around $650,000, some $300,000 of which came from the government. Some analysts put the PRI investment in electing its candidate for governor at over $30 million. And the PRI has ready access to state-run media.
The playing field, clearly, is still far from level. Under Salinas, however, the system has gradually opened. A candidate from the National Action Party (PAN), a party to PRI's right, won in Baja California last year. Now PAN has triumphed in Chihuahua.
But PAN, with its free-market leanings, is relatively easy for a Salinas-run PRI to get along with. The best test of whether Mexican politics is truly breaking free of one-party rule will come if the PRI's hold loosens in more than a couple of states. Then we might see if the president's commitment to democratic processes goes beyond allaying the concerns of people in Washington with whom he has to negotiate a free-trade pact.