Can Mexico Become a Multiparty Democracy?

Zedillo's perilous task: ousting 'dinosaurs'

SOME nations suffer one-man rule for a few decades. Mexico has lived with one-party rule for 66 years. Hand-picked presidents are duly elected every six years; the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) remains.

The result was once christened a ''perfect dictatorship'' by Peru's onetime presidential candidate (and unpopular Cassandra), novelist Mario Vargas Llosa.

Mexican president Ernesto Zedillo, who arrives in Washington to meet with President Clinton next week, has diligently pursued democratic reform of this creaking system since his election last December. Despite a troubled first nine months in office, he continues this reform agenda. Mexico's main political parties, including the rebel Zapatistas of Chiapas, will start serious discussions soon.

Unfortunately, democratization faces a struggle. Powerful people have benefited from corruption and impunity from justice. As is the case in any country, the people in and around power have a vested interest in staying there.

The system is under siege because such self-preservation led to pervasive financial crisis earlier this year. The system can also be blamed for other recent governmental scandals: political assassinations linked to the ruling PRI; drug connections; and revelations that in the small southern state of Tabasco last November, the PRI candidate for governor spent about $70 million on his campaign, $20 million more than either Bill Clinton or George Bush was allowed, and about 60 times the Mexican legal limit for that election.

Control by TV and taxes

So how does this dictatorship work, what makes it ''perfect'' (by Vargas Llosa's definition) and what can be done in the way of reform?

The holding of regularly scheduled multiparty elections does not by any means signify that Mexico is fully democratic. Today, the ruling PRI effectively controls who wins at the federal level. Up to now, the basically uneducated majority of the electorate has been politically apathetic and much influenced by television, from which 90 percent of the people get their only news. TV station owners are pro-PRI. And, in federal election campaigns, only the ruling party has run spot TV advertising.

Under the Mexican Constitution, there is no reelection to the same office, so officials move on and there is no congressional accountability to constituents. The president has the final say as to who will be the ruling party's candidates - ensuring loyalty only to him and the party. Likewise, the president controls the country's money. Only the federal government is allowed to raise funds, and each year the Congress rubber-stamps the president's budget. Most important, of all the revenues the government collects, the president has discretionary control - with no accountability - of approximately one-third.

Fair elections, shared flag

For true reform and effective democracy to replace the current Mexican practices, one major ingredient is needed: the full and continuing commitment of President Zedillo. The big question is: Has he the will to stand up to the old guard of his own party, the ''dinosaurs,'' who are expected to oppose reform at every step?

Zedillo himself has proposed reforms that would give the Senate, rather than the executive, power to name Supreme Court justices and that would allow Congress to name an auditor to oversee public finances.

These reforms do not, however, guarantee fair elections. Under the present system, the PRI will simply retain control of the legislature and no real multiparty electoral improvement will have been effected.

The naming of an independent head of the Federal Election Commission will set a valuable precedent, but secure legal changes should come first. Another top priority must be media reform. Television is the key to making elections fair. What's needed is an apolitical nonpartisan commission to oversee electoral fairness and the licensing process. The granting and renewing of TV concessions should not remain in PRI hands.

A true break is needed between the government and the PRI (which now has exclusive access to public funds for its campaigns - without accountability).

One very simple proposition should be adopted: Either all or none of the political parties should be able to use the colors of the flag (now a PRI prerogative).

The next few months will tell whether or not Mexico will become democratic, and a reliable NAFTA partner. If the answer is yes, Mario Vargas Llosa might be asked to issue a retraction.

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