CHAMPIONING the cause of democracy, a small but influential group of Mexican citizens is working to incite city residents to vote for a change in how one of the world's largest cities is governed.
The vote has no legal or constitutional weight. But it is already sparking heated debate over the capital city's political future andcould stimulate reforms that would weaken the powers of the Mexican president. Depending on how Mexico City's mayor handles the challenge, it could affect his prospects as a presidential contender in the 1994 elections, analysts say. Citizens unite
A coalition of intellectuals, artists, and five political parties - including members of the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) - are organizing the plebiscite. Next month the residents of the Federal District (DF), as Mexico City is known, will give a thumbs up or down on whether to stay with a presidentially appointed government.
"There is no local representation," says Federico Reyes Heroles, one of the plebiscite organizers and publisher of Este Pais, a monthly magazine. "You have 8 to 10 million citizens governed by a strongman of the president, who is a part of the president's Cabinet. And you have a `Congress' that isn't a congress."
In 1928, President Alvaro Obregon established Mexico City as a district governed by a mayor designated by the chief executive. The police chief and administrative delegates overseeing the 16 districts of the city today are also political appointees.
In 1988, the DF "Congress" or Assembly of Representatives was formed. Its creation was a response to a political reform movement that grew out of the 1985 Mexico City earthquake. A lack of federal initiative after the quake spawned many local civic organizations to help victims. But the Assembly's powers are severely limited. It can fine-tune existing legislation by passing city ordinances and can make recommendations. But it has no significant legislative powers, and no power over municipal spending or taxes.
The major opposition parties on the left and right want the DF to become Mexico's 32nd state. "We'd like the Assembly to disappear and see a real Congress formed," says Amalia Garcia Medina, a representative of the left-leaning Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) in the Assembly.
Attempting to gain the upper hand over the political reform issue, Mexico City Mayor Manuel Camacho Solis has been holding a series of "consultative" forums in recent months to help define the necessary changes. "The city cannot continue as a dependency of the [federal] administration. It requires a political government," he said on Feb. 15. "But it's not easy to find the best way to govern a city as complicated as ours."
Neither Mayor Camacho nor the ruling PRI have taken an official position on the plebiscite or what sort of poltical reforms they favor.
But individual party members have criticized the proposed 32nd state as a recipe for crisis. "Can you imagine what would happen if you allowed a patchwork quilt of political parties to govern a city of this size? There'd be pitched battles over water distribution, bus routes, police patrols.... It would be chaos," a high-ranking PRI official says.
Other PRI officials describe the DF as a special case. It is not just another state, it is the historic, political, and economic center of Mexico, they say. One-fourth of the nation's population lives in the greater Mexico City area. Some 40 percent of the nation's gross national product comes from here, they argue.
Mr. Reyes Heroles counters that Paris, London, and Tokyo are mega-capitals that have prospered under democratic rule. "If we had democracy here, maybe we wouldn't be on the brink of chaos. If citizens voted and felt a responsibility for the taxes and laws governing the development of their neighborhoods, maybe we wouldn't have the urban sprawl and problems we have now."
Luis Rubio, director of the Research Center for Development, a private think tank, calls the plebiscite a "political tactic.... Everyone wants democracy but nobody's defining what that means." He calls the plebiscite an "excellent idea" if there is consensus between all political parties, if there is ample public debate over the implications, and if there's consensus on the plebiscite wording. But he says none of the criteria is being met.
Plebiscite proponents counter that one aim of the vote is to force the PRI to take a position and explain it. Electoral laws come up for debate in the Mexican congress in April.
Pro-plebiscite campaigners want the Congress to include the DF in its electoral reforms. "We hope that the turnout will be sufficient that the government cannot ignore the call for a real democracy in the DF," Ms. Garcia Medina says.
Proponents admit that implied in the call for democracy is an attack on presidential power. Critics say that it also puts political heat on Camacho, a long time friend of President Carlos Salinas de Gortari and potential PRI candidate for the presidency.
Rubio says Camacho is walking a political tightrope now. It will be difficult to please all constituencies. "He took a dangerous step by opening this discussion of democracy. We'll have to see how he's going to get out of this."
Those mounting the plebiscite - with no political party resources - also face a significant challenge. The goal is to set up 3,000 voting stations around the city, each manned by four or five volunteers.
Organizers say some 40 local groups have pledged their support so far. Famous Mexican intellectuals and artists - including Carlos Fuentes and Jose Luis Cuevas - are lending their time and talents to the effort. To give credibility to the vote and show that a fast count is possible (Mexican election returns are notoriously slow), the Rosenblueth Foundation, a private academic research group, will set up a computerized tally system. Ruling party resistance
Proponents claim they are meeting resistance due to orders by the PRI hierarchy telling party members not to assist or participate in the plebiscite. Alejandro Rojas Diaz-Duran, one of two PRI assembly representatives supporting the initiative, says party militants will defy the PRI leadership. "There's a new generation that wants the PRI to be a real political party, not just an instrument used to legitimize the government."
What happens if the turnout is low? The plebiscite pushers admit it could flop. "We'd hope to have 400,000 to 500,000 people participate. But if 100,000 participate at least that gives voice to a far greater number than the 300 people who've attended the Mayor's consultative forums" says Demetrio Sodi de la Tijera, a PRI assembly member.