Mexico's PRI Attempts Reform

But the party's traditionalists contend that Salinas `yuppies' are giving away the store

A SWEEPING and controversial democratic reform proposal has Mexico's main political parties behaving like seething bulls outnumbered by matadors. They see red, but they are not sure which way to charge.

Next week Mexican legislators will meet in an extraordinary session with Mexican President Carlos Salinas de Gortari's ruling party to seek multiparty support for the political reform package. The aim of the changes, analysts say, is to bolster credibility in the fraud-tainted Mexican electoral process where the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) has not lost a presidential race in six decades.

Among the key reforms in the PRI package are:

* Limits on campaign financing. Opposition parties charge government funds and unrestricted private donations are often used to finance PRI election campaigns.

* Equal access to the media for all political parties.

* Greater oversight of the electoral roll and voting process.

* A constitutional amendment to forbid any party from holding more than 65 percent of all seats in the lower house of the Mexican Congress, preventing a single party from having the two-thirds majority needed to make constitutional changes.

* The sanctioning of congressional elections by a federal electoral agency. Until now, newly elected legislators approved their own elections.

The presentation of the reforms three weeks ago by Fernando Ortiz Arana, president of the PRI, provoked outrage from the traditional factions of the party, who said the Salinas "yuppies" were giving away the store.

The public acrimony has since dissipated. Divisions remain, but an uneasy consensus of support is developing for most of the proposed changes. But two key exceptions continue to generate heated debate.

To open up the Mexican Senate to greater representation by other parties (PRI holds 60 of the 64 seats), the PRI proposes each state get a third senator. This third seat would go to the party that places second in the elections, thus adding 32 additional senators likely to be from opposition parties.

Some opposition to this idea comes from PRI members who object to any opening, and there is also debate over the minimum percentage of votes (the PRI wants at least 20 percent, the opposition seeks 12 to 15 percent) to qualify for a Senate seat. The conservative National Action Party (PAN) may also push for a fourth Senate seat for each state.

"This proposal gives the PRI continued control of the Senate but opens it up to more debate. Based on the 1991 election results, the PAN will benefit the most, while it is doubtful the [center-left] Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) will gain any seats," says Arturo Sanchez Gutierrez, director of research at the Mexican Institute of Political Studies, a private Mexico City think tank.

The other point of contention is the elimination of the so-called "governability clause." The clause says one party in the 500-seat Chamber of Deputies (the lower house) must have the majority. So far, the PRI has held the majority.

"This way the Mexican president can count on a chamber that he can work with," explains Mr. Sanchez.

The PAN and PRD have argued there are plenty of examples of functioning democracies where a single party was not guaranteed the majority in the lower house.

But the PRI replacement plan - a combination of 300 seats with direct district elections and 200 seats divided up according to the representative proportional vote among the parties - is not an improvement, opposition parties say.

"Getting rid of the governability clause sounds good. But the result will be that the PRI will do as well or better. Even using the 1988 results - the worst in PRI history - the PRI would have put more deputies in the chamber if the proposed system were in use then," Sanchez says.

Sanchez says the PAN knows all opposition parties will suffer if the governability clause is exchanged for the PRI plan.

But the PAN may be willing to trade off this disadvantage for the advantage of potentially greater participation in the Senate. If the PRI can gain PAN support for its reforms, then the Mexican government would gain at least the appearance of a bi-partisan democracy, analysts say.

In recent days, leaders of the principal parties have met behind closed doors to haggle over the reforms. Details such as how much each party can spend and how the limits will be determined are not clear yet. The PRD argues the reforms have not touched its major concern: the legitimacy of the voting process.

"Those who administer the elections are absolutely controlled by the government and the government is totally behind its party," says Ricardo Pascoe Pierce, a campaign manager for the PRD presidential candidate Cuauhtemoc Cardenas Solorzano. "This proposal does not afford clear and credible elections," he concludes.

The PRI holds 62 percent of the seats in the lower house and could probably pass its proposal without developing a consensus with the other major parties. But opposition support is crucial to the central goal of the reform: credible elections.

"If there is not a consensus for the new law in 1993, the opposition will denounce the 1994 elections as illegitimate," Sanchez says.

The legitimacy issue is not only domestic but international. Mr. Salinas has never pretended that political reform took precedence over economic reforms.

But with the United States Congress wavering on ratifying the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the lack of democratic initiatives may now be endangering free trade - a cornerstone of Salinas's economic project. As NAFTA critic US Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D) of New York has said: "You can't have a free trade agreement with a country that hasn't had a free election."

Meanwhile, the PRI faces an Aug. 20 deadline to pass the reforms or they will not become law in time for the 1994 presidential and congressional elections. Some PRI members are arguing the reforms can wait.

"With the 1991 federal electoral law, we held clear and transparent elections," says Pedro Ojeda Paullada. But having admitted the need for improvement, the PRI would leave itself open for criticism in 1994 if it doesn't pass the reforms.

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