Mexican Parties Agree on Political Reforms

Chiapas rebellion is credited with spurring pact on key steps to open electoral process

ALTHOUGH face-to-face peace talks are yet to begin, the pressure for reform that the Chiapas rebellion has placed on the Mexican government is already having a profound impact on the politics there.

The Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which has been in power for 64 years, has agreed to a series of unprecedented political concessions to create ``a climate favorable to advancing the process of reconciliation in Chiapas,'' said President Carlos Salinas de Gortari in a nationally broadcast address last week.

On Jan. 27, eight of the nine Mexican political parties agreed to a package of reforms designed to ``guarantee clean elections'' in August.

Included in the pact are commitments to:

* Impartiality by electoral authorities.

* An external audit of voting rosters.

* Equal access to the media by all parties.

* A ban on the use of public funds by any political party and a post-electoral review of party financing.

* A review of the penal code for laws that restrict political expression.

The pact also opens the door for a special session of Congress to create laws to meet the demands of the pact and the naming of a special attorney general to investigate electoral fraud.

``We are closer than ever to having a guarantee of clean elections,'' said Cuauhtemoc Cardenas Solorzano, presidential candidate for the center-left Democratic Revolutionary Party.

The accord marks the first time Mr. Cardenas has signed a document that was also signed by PRI party officials since he left the party in 1987. In 1988, Cardenas lost to Salinas in the closest presidential election in Mexican history. Many Mexicans, including Cardenas, have questioned the validity of the 1988 electoral results.

In another major concession, after months of arguing, the PRI agreed to dramatically lower the campaign spending ceiling. The original proposal to put a cap of 650 million pesos (about $211 million) on each political party was dropped to 134 million pesos ($43.5 million).

The major opposition parties, with fewer financial resources than the PRI, pushed unsuccessfully for a 67-million-peso ($21.7 million) limit. Still, analysts see the new spending limit as a significant change in PRI policy.

``There's no way these concessions would have been made without the Chiapas rebellion,'' says political analyst Arturo Sanchez of the Mexican Institute of Political Studies, a private think tank.

The Chiapas insurrection has also prompted a shuffling of Salinas' Cabinet, the resignation of the governor of Chiapas, the passage of an amnesty law, and a pledge to reform the Chiapas judicial system.

Mr. Sanchez notes the latest changes are not going over well with the old guard within the ruling party, who have resisted previous attempts at electoral reform. One indication of dissension within the ranks, says Sanchez, is that some PRI legislators are saying that the special session of Congress called to deal with issues in the pact and scheduled for the second week of February will not include changes in the electoral law.

``To win support for these concessions within the PRI, Salinas had to make a public statement of support for Colosio. That was the trade off,'' says Sanchez.

Luis Donaldo Colosio is the PRI candidate for the presidency. But there is rampant speculation that chief peace negotiator Manuel Camacho Solis could replace Mr. Colosio if he can bring a quick end to the Chiapas uprising.Sarge Sarmiento, a well-known columnist for the independent daily El Financiero, also commends the electoral pact. But the follow-through will be important. He warns: ``This is the third round of reforms to the electoral rules during this administration's six years in office. This simple fact is a source of distrust.''

Still, in Chiapas on Saturday, Mr. Camacho pointed to the release of 38 of 70 captured rebels and the electoral concessions as examples of the government's good faith in meeting rebel demands for ``clean elections'' and ``democracy.''

``The subject most complicated and vital to a solution in the Chiapas conflict, which is the advancement of democracy in our country, has received the unqualified support of the national political forces,'' Camacho said in an 11-page communique to the rebel leadership.

``We are at the start of a major change in our nation's political relations,'' he added.

In the communique, Camacho also outlined the government's proposal to begin direct dialogue with the group of armed Indian rebels who took over six towns on New Year's Day. About 100 people died in battles between the Mexican Army and the guerrillas. A temporary truce has brought a halt to the fighting.

ADDRESSING the guerrillas' complaint that the Mexican government has not clearly recognized it as a political entity, Camacho says, ``The government wants you to have political representation.... This commissioner is disposed to sit down with the EZLN [Zapatista National Liberation Army] as a political force in formation.'' S

Camacho implies in the communique that the EZLN would have to evolve from being an armed force to being a civilian political force in order to gain government recognition.

Camacho's negotiation plan would cover the economic, social, and political demands of the rebels. It includes setting up an ``absolutely safe'' amnesty mechanism, the release of prisoners, and a review of the many Indians now in jail for having ``participated in different fights for social causes.''

The process he suggests is: negotiation, peace accords, the first results from the accords, the declaration of a permanent cease-fire, disarmament, reconciliation and return to work, and the open participation of the EZLN in social and political organizations.

But Camacho's communique is laced with a sense of urgency and forboding.

``We must do a good job in fixing [the situation in] Chiapas, quickly, with seriousness and honesty, or we will remain here stuck in conflict.... There are no halfway positions anymore.... We make a peace pact for democracy or things get worse.''

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