Mexico City Mayor Steers Slow Course to Self-Rule

But critics say reforms are political paternalism

THE Mexican government - bowing to a democratic reform movement - will allow a gradual shift from a federal to a local government in one of the world's largest capital cities.

With presidential blessings, Mexico City Mayor Manuel Camacho Solis announced last week that starting in 1994, the laws governing Mexico City - also known as the Federal District - will be created by the local Assembly of Representatives. The Assembly will also be granted the power to approve the city budget. And in 1995, the 16 city districts will form their own advisory councils, with power to control zoning and to "supervise the community."

Since its inception in 1988, the Assembly has only been able to make recommendations.

"The Federal District has existed as a state of political deception. This is a significant and important advance," says Hector Zamitiz Gamboa, a political scientist at Mexico's National Autonomous University.

Mexico City has been governed by a political appointee of the Mexican president since 1929, when the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) took power. The party has held the presidency ever since. New mayoral selection policy

But in 1997, for the first time, it will be possible for the capital city to be governed by a party in opposition to the president. The Mexico City mayor will be selected from the party that wins the majority of votes here. But the Mexican president will still be the one to choose the mayor.

The details of how the presidential selection process will actually work have not been presented yet.

This formula "consolidates representative democracy, recognizes the rights of local citizens, and maintains the equilibrium with the national political systems, even if there are changes in the preferences of the electorate," Mayor Camacho says.

"We are faced with the historic opportunity to pair the rights of a local congress with those for the federal powers," he adds.

The opposition blasted the proposed reforms as half-hearted.

Allowing the president to pick the mayor "is totally unacceptable," says Hiram Escudero Alvarez, an Assembly representative of the conservative National Action Party (PAN).

The PAN wants the Federal District to become Mexico's 32nd state, with direct elections for governor and a state congress. PAN officials say the "semi-parliamentary scheme" remains overshadowed by a powerful presidential system.

Sergio Sarmiento, a columnist for the daily national newspaper El Financiero, condemned the reforms as continued political paternalism. "The magnanimous partial and gradual concession of a natural right does nothing more than underline the government's treatment of capital residents as children unable to decide for themselves," he writes. PRI argues for gradual change

PRI officials argue that in the interest of "stability and governability" the reforms should be gradual. Most analysts agree with the opposition that the reforms are "incomplete." It is unclear, for example, how much autonomy the administrative delegates of the city's 16 districts will be given and whether they will continue to be appointed by the president.

Opposition politicians also question whether the next administration will follow through in enacting these reforms. Presidential elections are being held in the middle of next year. The opposition is expressing hope - albeit faint - that Camacho can be persuaded to modify some of the proposals.

Analysts give Camacho credit for actually pushing through any substantive reforms. Nationally, the PRI has been split by conservative members, known as "dinosaurs," who have fought - often successfully - reformist attempts to make the ruling party more "democratic" or accountable to the grass roots. And Mexico City is the political, economic, and cultural heart of Mexico. Any perceived weakening of the ruling party's grip on power here is taken very seriously.

Alfonso Zarate Flores, director of Grupo Consultor Interdisciplinario, a Mexico City-based political consulting firm, notes that Camacho's actions take on special relevance because he now is walking the pre-presidential selection tightrope.

Camacho is among the top five contenders to be chosen as the PRI's candidate for president. "Any slip at this point could cost the mayor his political career," Mr. Zarate says.

Indeed, the high wire was twanged sharply on March 21 when an informal plebiscite was held here. Some 320,000 locals voted overwhelmingly in favor of electing local leaders, setting up a local congress, and creating a 32nd state. Camacho could not ignore the widely publicized vote.

But Zarate and other analysts say there is just enough substance to the partial reforms that Camacho may have deftly recovered his political balance on this issue.

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