ONE of the more insistent arguments being made on Capitol Hill for rapid approval of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) is that it is needed to ensure stability in Mexico.
President Carlos Salinas de Gortari is nearing the end of his six-year term, and is ineligible to succeed himself.
Later this year, he will name an heir-apparent who will run on the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) ticket in August 1994. Since Mexico's leadership has staked its future on NAFTA, that candidate's prospects will be hurt if the trade agreement is postponed.
That, it is suggested, could spell the end of reform in Mexico and threaten political and economic chaos.
There are many reasons to question this assessment. In the first place, none of the alternatives to the PRI threaten the country's political stability. Mexico has no armed insurgencies. Its remaining hard-line leftist parties lack popular support and, ironically, survive only because they are subsidized by the government as a counterweight to the moderate left.
Far from seeking to curtail reform, both of Mexico's major opposition parties are calling for wider reforms.
The centrist National Action Party (PAN) supports President Salinas's free-market initiatives and now seeks matching political reforms. Similarly, the center-left Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) has made electoral reform its overriding priority.
Like the PAN, the PRD proposes a "democratic revolution" to replace one-party rule with a genuine multiparty democracy.
Though the PRD and large segments of the PAN are unhappy with NAFTA in its present form, most of their objections parallel those of a majority of the United States public and members of Congress. They are concerned about the lack of protection for labor rights and working conditions.
Like Ross Perot, they do not want their country to serve as a low-wage platform that sucks jobs from the north by denying decent incomes in Mexico.
They also want guarantees that their environment will not become a dumping ground for toxic wastes. Mexico's democratic opposition is, therefore, a natural ally to reformers on Capitol Hill.
So why fear Mexican democracy? There is concern in Washington that a setback for the PRI would lead to a Cardenas presidency.
As the son of the president who nationalized the Mexican oil industry, PRD leader Cuauhtemoc Cardenas Solorzano evokes the prospect of a return to nationalism and state intervention in the economy.
Yet the fears are greatly exaggerated. While Mr. Cardenas would doubtless adopt a more independent foreign policy, his primary strategy for raising incomes would be to dismantle the present government's draconian controls over labor unions and wages.
Cardenas' commitment to democracy, moreover, would limit his freedom. The man Mexicans call "Cuauhtemoc" is far more popular than his party. Should the PRI falter, Cardenas would almost certainly have to share power with a Chamber of Deputies dominated by the PAN, which is far better organized at the state and local level, and a Senate still run by the PRI, since only half the Senate is up for election in 1994. That would lead to genuine multiparty democracy and a separation of powers between the executi ve and legislative branches for the first time in Mexican history. It would also mean that Cardenas' more liberal economic tendencies would be checked by Congress as well as the prospect of a PAN victory in the next presidential election.
The beneficial effects of a more measured approach to concluding NAFTA extend to the internal politics of the PRI.
The three top contenders in the internal power struggle now underway are Finance Minister Pedro Aspe, Minister of Social Development Luis Donaldo Colosio, and Mexico City Mayor Manuel Camacho Solis. All would, in broad terms, hold to the government's current economic policies. Yet they would diverge on political reform.
Quick approval of NAFTA would bolster Mr. Aspe, an economic technocrat who is seen as representing continuity with President Salinas' policies.
Moderate complications would help Mr. Colosio, a political wheeler-dealer who heads a ministry that hands out patronage grants to the poor.
More-substantial delays and modifications, on the other hand, would tend to favor Mr. Camacho. Trained as a public-policy analyst, Camacho has cultivated an image as a negotiator willing to bargain with the opposition. Since political reform threatens the entrenched position of the PRI, Camacho is not a favorite of the party establishment.
Yet Camacho's star rises to the extent that the PRI's fortunes drop, making him an alternative to outright loss of power to the opposition.
Strange though it may seem, the prospects for reform in Mexico, both within the ruling party and the political system, are inversely related to prospects for speedy approval of NAFTA.
That suggests we should proceed with care, giving due attention to the labor and environmental safeguards desired by solid majorities in Canada, the US, and Mexico.
IF a relaxed timetable does not suit Salinas's political aims, that shouldn't be our concern. Salinas, after all, soon will be political history. The worst that could happen is that Mexican reformers inside and outside the PRI will find their hands strengthened.
More important than the speed with which NAFTA is implemented are the basic conditions that will determine its ultimate success or failure. Those include enforcement of comparable labor and environmental standards essential to creating a level playing field for economic competition, and for ensuring that the benefits of economic integration will be enjoyed by all.
In the end, the most reliable way of guaranteeing such enforcement is through democratic reform that will allow Mexicans to defend their own rights through the checks and balances afforded by clean elections and a genuine multiparty system.
It is therefore peculiar to see members of Congress, not to mention some members of the Clinton administration, wanting to help preserve one-party rule next door, even as such systems fall into global disrepute.
Should we not have more faith in democracy? Anything less would be insulting to our Mexican neighbors and prospective NAFTA partners.