BECAUSE every incoming Mexican president remains under the shadow of the outgoing president until inauguration day, the first real sign of what to expect from the new administration comes with announcement of the new Cabinet. Subject to constraints imposed by the need to accommodate factions within the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), President Ernesto Zedillo Ponce de Leon has made appointments that signal a commitment to political reform that was all but absent under his predecessor. That commitment - symbolized most powerfully in the appointment of an opposition leader as attorney general - will face a series of early tests, as Mr. Zedillo confronts unresolved problems inherited from the previous administration.
The first test will come in the rebellious state of Chiapas. Tensions there have been mounting since the gubernatorial election in August. By official count, PRI candidate Eduardo Robledo won the governorship with just over 50 percent of the vote, to 35 percent for Amado Avendano of the center-left Party of the Democratic Revolution. Yet observers from Civic Alliance, a coalition of election observation groups, documented a pattern of widespread vote fraud, the worst of any of the 31 states.
Ballot secrecy was violated in two-thirds of the polls observed; attempts were made to influence voters in 45 percent of locations; and in 9 percent, voters were seen casting multiple ballots rolled inside each other like tacos. Because of the irregularities, Mr. Avendano has refused to concede the election, and his supporters, who include tens of thousands of protesters and the Zapatista insurgents, vow to occupy town halls, block highways, and withhold tax payments until Mr. Robledo, who was inaugurated two weeks ago, steps down.
In an effort to mediate, Chiapas's three Catholic bishops recently proposed a recount. By rejecting the idea, the PRI-dominated state congress has only reinforced suspicions of fraud. To dispel the doubts and begin healing the state's deep divisions, it is essential that a new, unexceptionably clean election be convened. With Esteban Moctezuma in charge of the Ministry of Government, which handles federal-state relations, Zedillo has a competent and loyal administrator adequate to the task. All that is needed is a presidential nod signaling a determination to rid the country of electoral fraud at all levels of government.
A related problem is that of human rights abuses by the Army. Last January, while forcing the Zapatistas back into their rain-forest bases, the Army tortured prisoners, executed captives, and bombed civilians. Atrocities have hurt the Army's relations with inhabitants, but the government has not sought to discipline those responsible. A full investigation is probably beyond the political options of an incoming president.
Zedillo could signal a determination to prevent future violations of human rights by ordering that an exemplary general be released from jail. Francisco Gallardo, who studied at West Point and obtained a master's degree in political science from the National University of Mexico, became the youngest brigadier general in modern Mexican history. He angered superiors by proposing the appointment of a human rights ombudsman for the armed forces. Mexican courts have dismissed most of the trumped-up charges leveled at him. By releasing the general and pursuing his suggestion to appoint a human rights ombudsman, Zedillo could set a new tone without threatening anyone in the high command.
A third crucial task involves confronting corruption in the government and ruling party. Zedillo faces an immediate test by how he pursues the unresolved assassinations of PRI presidential candidate Luis Donaldo Colosio and PRI secretary-general Jose Francisco Ruiz Massieu. Three weeks ago, Deputy Attorney General Mario Ruiz Massieu, brother of the deceased, resigned after charging that his investigation, which he said implicated powerful PRI and government officials, had been obstructed by the attorney general and the PRI's president.
In apparent response to that charge, Zedillo surprised pundits by naming Antonio Lozano, of the opposition National Action Party (PAN), attorney general. He also transferred PRI president Ignacio Pichardo to the Ministry of Energy. These moves suggest an intent to pursue the investigation without interference from the PRI.
The real test will come if investigators confirm Ruiz Massieu's charges of a conspiracy implicating members of the Cabinet. An unwritten but heretofore never- breached rule says no one of Cabinet rank may be prosecuted for wrongdoing. Were someone of that prominence to be brought to justice, it would send a powerful message to every politician, bureaucrat, and police official in Mexico - that impunity will no longer be tolerated. In a country where informal rules and the arbitrary power of individuals have always meant more than the written law, the power of example will be the ultimate test of political reform. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.