Mexican President Backs Economic Over Political Reform

EMBARKING on his fifth year at the helm, Mexican President Carlos Salinas de Gortari vowed in his State of the Nation address Nov. 1 to "consolidate" the economic gains won with his free-market reforms.

The annual address is mostly a back-patting and stock-taking exercise. Often, though, there are clues to major programs ahead. Opposition parties held some hope that in his last year before becoming a lame duck president, Mr. Salinas might tackle democratic reform with the same vigor he has applied to the economy, which has been the overriding focus of his presidency. Salinas has brought four consecutive years of economic growth, cut inflation to the lowest rate in two decades, created a fiscal surplus, and negotiated a free trade agreement with the United States.

But sifting through this year's 2 1/2 hour speech, analysts find little indication of political change.

"He didn't address the key problem: Mexican elections are not credible," says John Bailey, a Mexico specialist at Georgetown University. "They're `octopus elections.' There is so much obscuring ink in the water [voter registration manipulation, alleged fraud, etc.] not even the [members of the ruling party] know if they really won or not."

What Salinas did propose - without giving details - was greater disclosure of campaign financing, limits on election expenditures, and an effort to give all parties more equal access to the media. But this is seen by critics as a knee-jerk response to opposition complaints of fraud and unfairness in recent state elections.

In Michoacan state, for example, the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) candidate vastly outspent his opponent, doling out money for public works projects. There was no public accounting, but electoral observers estimate that the victory in Michoacan cost the PRI more than $20 million (about one-third of what US presidential candidate Ross Perot spent in his national campaign). Three weeks after the PRI candidate took office, street protests opposing electoral fraud forced him to step down.

Salinas, whose party has controlled the government for more than six decades, has implemented some election reforms. In 1990, a new electoral code was signed into law. And voter identification cards with photos are now being distributed for the 1994 presidential elections. While political pundits laud these steps, history suggests their value may be limited.

"Mexico has never had the same rules from one election to the next since 1940. Every president changes the rules in the name of `perfecting democracy,' " Mr. Bailey notes.

The problem resides in the electoral commission, which like most government institutions is staffed by PRI loyalists, analysts say. The commission runs elections, counts ballots, and adjudicates claims of fraud.

"Mexico needs an electoral commission that's not dominated by a single party," says Andrew Reding, director of the Mexico Project at the World Policy Institute in New York. He likens Mexico's electoral management to the systems in Cuba and the Dominican Republic. A more credible system is found in Costa Rica, he says, where commission members must have no party affiliation and are selected by the parliament.

In his State of the Nation address, Salinas repeated his wish that Mexico become a member of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). But the OECD has democratic as well as economic requisites for membership.

But the PRI is hesitant, observers say, because political reforms could endanger its hold on power. Salinas became president in 1988 in a close race marred by claims of electoral fraud.

According to polls, Salinas is personally far more popular now. But for the first time in the PRI's history, it has allowed three state governorships to pass into the hands of the National Action Party, the main conservative opposition party. In coming months, the PRI could conceivably lose the border states of Tamaulipas and Yucatan.

Perhaps also impeding democratic reform is the concern that political instability could undermine foreign investment and the nation's climb out of poverty. "Salinas has seen what happened with political reform in the Soviet Union and doesn't want to go down the same road," Mr. Reding notes.

THIS view is reinforced by Salinas's willingness to replace PRI state governors when opposition protests of electoral fraud achieve a certain notoriety at home and abroad.

In his address, Salinas tried to discourage such protests, calling for "respect for the law" and for democratic participants to act "within a framework of legality" if the country is to develop its political institutions.

Two days before the annual address, Salinas called a group of legislators and journalists to Los Pinos, the presidential residence, to formally announce that he would not run for reelection.

The Mexican Constitution forbids reelection, but speculation has been rampant that given his youth, popularity, and economic success, Salinas might have enough support to change the Constitution. Analysts see this as a stabilizing move, to reduce political maneuvering within the PRI and clear the way for the traditional naming of a PRI presidential candidate a year from now.

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