Mexico's 'Unpolitician' May Save Politics-As-Usual

President Zedillo may be the best asset the ruling PRI has to maintain its 60-year reign after July 6 elections

Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo is happily pressing the flesh along a cordon outside this northern Mexico town. And between whoops and cheers, Nora Alda Mendoza Segura is explaining why she came out on a 100-degree day to see her president.

"He's someone we can feel in our hearts. He's a humble man who comes from conditions like ours," says the mother from Alta Mira, an industrial community in Tamaulipas State. "He's working hard for Mexico, not for himself. He's honest."

Across Mexico, a growing number of Mexicans are thinking the same way, according to opinion polls. After the country's worst recession in 60 years dropped Mr. Zedillo's ratings into the sub-basement in 1995-96, those ratings are doing an about face - just in time for the country's watershed mid-term elections July 6.

With the once laughable now plausible - that Zedillo could save these elections for his widely vilified Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) - his role in the campaign and his place in Mexico's democratization process have become a hot controversy.

Only a few months ago, the PRI looked destined to lose after more than six decades of ruling Mexico in what some analysts call the "perfect dictatorship." Prospects were excellent for the center-right National Action Party (PAN) and the left-leaning Democratic Revolution Party (PRD) to snatch an absolute majority from the PRI for the first time in modern Mexico's history, ending its lock on power.

But with the election barely two weeks away, the PRI is suddenly better positioned to salvage the elections. While it's likely to lose the governorship of Mexico City, which becomes an elected position (and not a presidential appointment), the PRI appears to be benefiting from a voter swing that may be enough to give it three more years of congressional rule.

The first explanation for this is improvement in the economy. Although the average Mexican is still not feeling the uptick, the economy is growing at about 5 percent annually. Mexico created more than 367,000 new jobs in the first five months of this year, after losing more than 1 million in the 1995-96 downturn.

Other reasons include the poor campaign performance of the second-largest party, PAN, which is suffering from its image as an intolerant, moralistic force. The PRI also seems to be gaining some ground with what is widely dubbed its "fear campaign": telling generally stick-with-what's-safe Mexican voters that an opposition-led Congress would mean chaos and instability. Such threats conjure up frightening images of another economic crisis.

A self-made man

And then there is Zedillo, the unpolitician. For many Mexicans, the PRI is synonymous with the country's ingrained corruption and the financial scandals engulfing many party heavyweights, including the family of former President Carlos Salinas de Gortari. Zedillo is a welcome rebuttal for the ruling party. The son of a working-class family who grew up shining shoes, he is one version of Mexico's self-made man.

"I'm here to listen to the voice of my brothers from working people's neighborhoods," Zedillo tells the crowds he meets on twice-weekly trips to rural Mexico, like the one to Tamaulipas.

When Zedillo says that he needs a PRI Congress to keep Mexico on a stable path, at least some Mexicans appear to be heeding those words in a way that they wouldn't have even a few months ago.

Except in the capital, where PAN is strong, Zedillo "is very clearly helping his party," says Juan Francisco Marn Daz, assistant director of political and social studies at the Center for Opinion Studies, a polling organization in Guadalajara. "It's still too early to say if he is saving the elections for the PRI, but it's a possibility."

One-party state?

That "possibility" has led some observers and opposition politicians to criticize Zedillo's campaigning. While Zedillo insists he has the same right as any democratically elected leader to support his party in campaign season, critics say an incomplete emergence from single-party rule means Mexico can't yet be compared with democracies such as France or the United States.

"Mexico is different. We still have this all-powerful presidency that controls the country's resources and how and where they are divided," says Diego Alonso Hinojosa, PAN mayor of Tampico. Charging the president with discarding the "healthy distance" he once said he would keep from his party, Mr. Hinojosa says Zedillo has ended up embracing the old system where "what is meant to benefit all ends up benefiting the party." Tampico saw its funding from Mexico City and the PRI-run state government fall by about a third after the PAN took over city hall in 1996, Hinojosa says. "The object is to make the opposition look like incapable governors," he claims.

Zedillo and top presidential advisers reject such claims. They say the president has been the staunchest promoter of a multiparty system for Mexico, pointing to among other things last year's electoral reforms, which established an independent electoral institute and called for Mexico City's mayor to be directly elected. The reforms, they say, will make next month's elections the fairest in Mexico's history.

Mexico's political system received another jolt with the death Saturday of Fidel Velasquez Sanchez, the president of the Confederation of Mexican Workers. Mr. Velasquez led Mexico's labor movement for six decades and was the champion of its allegiance to the PRI. Zedillo called on workers to honor "don Fidel" by continuing their alliance with the government, but most analysts agree his passing symbolizes the PRI's waning power.

Still, old habits die hard. No one disputes Zedillo's right to promote his government and policies. But even as Zedillo condemns the "old paternalism" of a Mexico he says no longer exists, the same practices are there: On his Tamaulipas trip, the president handed out batches of community-development checks to local leaders.

In one encounter reminiscent of Argentina's queen of paternalism, Eva Peron, Zedillo stopped along a line of Tamaulipas farmers to inquire about a small boy who had trouble seeing. The smiling president briefly placed his own glasses on the boy's face, then moved on. "He said he would see to it that my boy gets what he needs," the boy's choked-up mother said. "I just knew that if I could get one word with him, the president could solve our problem."

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