Democracy in Mexico

THE resounding defeat of Mexico's long-dominant Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) in an important state governor's race could, ironically, prove something of a plus for President Ernesto Zedillo Ponce de Leon.

President Zedillo, buffeted by the peso crisis, the ongoing revolt in the southern state of Chiapas, and a series of embarrassing personnel changes in his administration, has staked much of his political future on a promise to strengthen democracy in Mexico.

That commitment has been greeted with skepticism by many. The PRI, the party of Zedillo, and of every Mexican president for the last 65 years, has had a habit of making sure elections tilt its way.

But the victory of the center-right National Action Party (PAN) in Jalisco, a west-coast state that includes the country's second-largest city, Guadalajara, gives Zedillo's pledge some credibility. Early returns indicated the PAN trounced the PRI, which was blamed for a 1992 sewer-line explosion in Guadalajara that killed hundreds and for the inability of police to track down the killers of a popular Catholic primate in 1993.

It will take more than a show of democratic vigor in one state, however, to anchor Zedillo's presidency. The currency problems and the simmering Chiapas rebellion are only the most prominent of his many, largely inherited, challenges.

The president's decision last week to send troops into rebel territory may have been a bid for decisiveness. But the timing is risky. If the rebels simply vanish and regroup elsewhere, the government could look foolish. Moreover, a drawn-out effort to quash the rebellion could more deeply etch an image of instability just as Mexico is struggling to get back on track economically.

Zedillo probably has the most difficult task in his country's recent history. Mexico is in the middle of a transition from a political system that rests on an all-powerful president backed by an all-powerful party -- and from a state-run economy to a free-market one. The country has little preparation for the diffusion of power that is now gaining momentum. It's struggling through uncharted waters.

NAFTA and the recent multibillion-dollar currency stabilization package are votes of confidence in Mexico's ability to make this stormy transition. Zedillo's problems as a helmsman are many, but his professed desire to deepen Mexican democracy should serve well as a rudder.

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