A Quiet Smile Toward Mexico

US sees ruling-party win as sign of stability, buoying NAFTA's key trade and investment ties

THOUGH United States officials would be reluctant to say so publicly, they are undoubtedly pleased with the victory of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) in the Aug. 21 elections in Mexico.

After all, the PRI has always been there. It has governed Mexico for 65 years. It has been a negotiating partner for every US president since Herbert Hoover. It has given Mexico the attributes State Department officials dream about, especially in a large and increasingly powerful neighbor: stability and predictability.

``We have a vested interest in seeing the PRI sustained in power, if only because its policies are more predictable than the other two parties,'' says Peter Hakim, president of the Inter-American Dialogue, an independent forum in Washington. ``There's a continuity we've become accustomed to.''

Although continuity now seems assured, US officials will breathe easier once it is clear that there will be no major repercussions from charges of irregularities in the election, which has catapulted the seventh PRI candidate in a row, Ernesto Zedillo Ponce de Leon, into the presidency. Washington's biggest worry all along has been that a disputed outcome could undermine the legitimacy of the election, with consequences that could outweigh the advantages of continuity.

The US has a good deal more at stake these days than it did when relations with Mexico reached a 20th-century low point. That was during the administration of Woodrow Wilson, who twice intervened in Mexico because he found the country's revolution untidy and its politics insufficiently democratic.

Today, untidiness in Mexico would seriously threaten crucial US interests. Since the ratification of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), exports to Mexico have soared. Mexico now imports more US goods than any nation in the world except Canada. In the event of turmoil, Mexicans would buy fewer US goods. Unrest could also result in higher risks and lower returns for US investors with money in Mexican firms - which is one reason why a good many US businessmen and bankers anxiously monitored the run-up to the Aug. 21 balloting.

The prospect of economic disruption had US immigration officials wringing their hands as well. Mexico already has to create 1 million new jobs per year to keep up with its growing population - as many as the US needs to create. But the Mexican economy is one-twentieth the size of the US's. Strikes, protests, or a resumption of insurrection in the southern state of Chiapas - all of which had been considered possible in the wake of a disputed election - could have swelled the exodus of illegal immigrants across the 2,000 mile US-Mexican border.

The US has been more attentive to these Mexican elections than any before because the US and Mexico are more interdependent than ever before. In the aftermath of the Aug. 21 balloting, US concerns have given way to guarded hopes. With Mr. Zedillo in power, Washington can count on a continuation of the free-market trade policies that have cemented the interdependence.

And it can count on one other thing: gestures by the new PRI that may take out some of the sting of defeat for Zedillo's opponents. If Zedillo turns out to be the first PRI candidate in history to win with less than 50 percent of the votes, as now appears likely, he could be the first PRI president in history to invite opposition parties into his Cabinet.

``All US interests would be advanced by an outcome that's perceived as honest, credible, and legitimate,'' says Mr. Hakim.

The early indications are that Mexico's most crucial elections in years have been, for the most part, all three.

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