Mexico's Fitful Reforms

ONE election cannot erase 65 years of a corrupt one-party political process. But the results of Mexico's vote suggest that the country is moving, if fitfully, toward democratic reform.

As of this writing, with nearly half of the ballots counted from the Aug. 21 election, Ernesto Zedillo Ponce de Leon of the incumbent Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) is the president-elect, with 48 percent of the vote. Diego Fernandez de Cevallos of the National Action Party (PAN) has polled about 31 percent. Cuauhtemoc Cardenas Solorzano of the Democratic Revolutionary Party is running third, at 16 percent.

As expected, the PRI's vast financial advantage, the pro-PRI bias of the media, and a well-entrenched machine gave the playing field a decided tilt. Reports of voting irregularities and fraud continue to surface. Many international observers, however, say the election-law violations were insufficient to change the outcome.

That is little solace to the losers, particularly to Mr. Cardenas, who argues with some justification that, except for blatant PRI fraud, he would have won the 1988 presidential election. Yet so far, his proportion of votes parallels the support he received in more reputable preelection polls. Mr. Fernandez, while criticizing the irregularities, called on his supporters to abide by the results. As the candidate of a conservative, pro-business party, this clearly is a plea for stability. Less understandable to many voters is why, after decisively winning the first (and only) televised presidential debate and experiencing a surge in the polls as a result, he kept a low profile following the event and didn't press Mr. Zedillo for a second round when the PRI candidate claimed he didn't have time for another contest. This has led to speculation that the two men cut a deal, perhaps affecting key posts in Congress or the makeup of Zedillo's Cabinet, that would give PAN more strength.

Based on the outcome, Zedillo can claim a mandate for continuing the economic reforms of outgoing President Carlos Salinas de Gortari; the PRI and PAN (roughly 80 percent of the vote) hold much the same economic view. January's revolt in Chiapas and the sympathetic responses it drew from the poor elsewhere in Mexico, however, signal a need for greater focus on softening the social effects of such reform.

In response to a 70 percent turnout and some 50 percent of the voters backing candidates who called for stronger political reforms, Zedillo also must press for more changes in the electoral processes - particularly campaign financing - as well as for their enforcement.

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