Boosting Legislature's Power Is the Key to Mexican Reform

The US can help by giving low-profile technical support

THE decision by newly inaugurated President Ernesto Zedillo Ponce de Leon to share the almost unbridled power of the chief of state with Mexico's Congress may provide a cornerstone for the creation of real democracy in a country that has known seven decades of executive branch authoritarianism.

During this year's hotly disputed presidential campaign, Mr. Zedillo, the standard-bearer of the long-ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), promised that decades of autocratic rule within a highly presidential system would come to an end with his election. Previously, the only real contact between Mexican presidents and the Congress was through annual state-of-the-nation speeches.

Since assuming the presidency Dec. 1, Zedillo has taken several steps to redeem his campaign pledge and ensure that Congress can make its voice heard on issues such as economics, security policy, and environmental protection, and play a greater role than ever before.

``I have decided that the power of the presidency cannot and should not be an omnipotent power, an omniscient power, nor an omnipresent power,'' Zedillo declared recently before a meeting of 500 legislators in the Chamber of Deputies. ``With this act, we start a new, different relationship between the legislative and executive powers of this country. I respect the autonomy of legislative power.''

Given Mexico's staggering array of challenges, some observers say that Zedillo's decision to share power is a shrewd attempt to forge greater public consensus over government policies and that by bringing the Congress into the equation, errors committed by the executive branch are less likely to put the country's stability at risk.

Crises of environmental degradation, ethnic unrest following the Indian rebellion last January in Chiapas State, an assertive military, and a downward spiral in public safety all require broad multipartisan solutions. An invigorated Congress, still controlled by the PRI, will provide the forum in which these issues can be debated and remedies proposed.

Traditionally, United States foreign policy has trodden carefully so as not to injure nationalist sentiments in Mexico, where a history of American interventions is not forgotten. However, Zedillo's promises to the new Congress, and the ongoing implementation of the North American Free Trade Agreement, provide the US with a historic opportunity to find unintrusive ways to offer technical expertise and resources to fortify the Congress.

At the just-concluded Summit of the Americas in Miami, the strengthening of legislatures, particularly by means of regional exchanges, was called one of the most important initiatives that could be undertaken to help consolidate democracy in the hemisphere.

THE oversight role played by relevant committees, the organization of congressional offices, and the participation by Mexico's increasingly active nongovernmental organizations in shaping and informing debate are all areas in which Mexican legislators could benefit from a well-planned and carefully executed US program of assistance. What's more, the recent turnover in the US Congress has left hundreds of well-trained, knowledgeable, hard-working staffers - some with Spanish-language skills - without jobs. The expertise is there.

As President Zedillo himself recognizes, he will need multipartisan support for the efforts he pledged as the PRI standardbearer to undertake: redressing the inequality of incomes, revolutionizing the administration of justice, and providing a safe, healthy environment, among others. In this quest, Mexican society must be involved in the most profound fashion. One way is by creating a strong, professional Congress that will ask hard questions when they need to be asked.

US support for such efforts keeps the spirit of the Miami summit and is in both nations' interests. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles we accept 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.

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