Amid choking air pollution, a fouled and shrinking water supply, chaotic urbanization, and disappearing jungles, a vote last Sunday offered a budding sign of the greening of Mexico.
Although the big news of the midterm elections was the loss by the long-ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) of its absolute majority in Congress, the surprise was the emergence of Mexico's fledgling Greens. Like a seedling popping out of soil that appeared barren, the six-year-old Green Ecologist Party of Mexico will go from no seats in the lower house of Congress to nine (out of 500 total seats).
With Sunday's vote, the Green Party emerges as not only as the largest environmental political party in the Americas, but what is already being called "the fourth power" in Mexican politics.
The party came in far behind the PRI and the two largest opposition parties - the center-right National Action Party and the center-left Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD). But in a Congress where the absence of a majority party suddenly makes everyone more equal, the votes of even the smallest delegation will become crucial.
"We will have a small presence in Congress, but our impact will derive from the leverage our members will hold in determining whether legislation has enough votes to be passed, and how that legislation is written," says Jorge Gonzlez Torres, the party's president. "This is a tremendous opportunity to boost to the forefront the ... issues we consider of first-rank importance."
The election results prove that the Greens' decision to encourage environmentally minded independent candidates - some of them well-known and popular - to run under their banner was politically astute.
The success of the Greens - about 1 million votes nationwide, or about 4 percent of the vote and almost 8 percent of the vote in Mexico City - reflects a growing awareness of environmental issues among Mexicans.
Mexico City's dirty air is legendary. But now other cities, such as the once-garden-like Guadalajara or the northern border's Tijuana and Ciudad Jurez, are confronting the same problem. Fouled water supplies are a health hazard in some communities, while many others in the poor rural south or the rapidly urbanizing border region lack running water or a sewage system.
THE government pays lip service to environmental protection. But the forests where the famed monarch butterflies winter and the tropical jungles of the south continue to disappear, as do the few remaining green spaces around gigantic Mexico City.
"The two big issues for Mexican voters leading into these elections were unemployment and the economy in general, and then crime and public security. But in large cities, especially, concerns about the environment were always close behind," says Juan Francisco Marn, a pollster at the Center for Opinion Studies in Guadalajara. "The environment has emerged as a noble cause people can identify with."
The Green's success also serves as a sign, in case the fall of the PRI from its unchallenged rule were not enough, that politics as usual is increasingly the bane of a more-demanding and sophisticated electorate. The Greens' slogan, "Don't vote for a politician, vote for an ecologist," struck a chord.
Veronica Delabra, a Mexico City child-care provider and housewife, is like many Mexican voters. Her deep disgust over repeated political scandals and government corruption left her sure that she would not support the PRI again.
"The campaigns of the big parties were little more than attacks on each other, but the Green Party had real proposals," she says. "They have good ideas for cleaning up and preserving our environment, which is something we can't ignore any more." The mother of two boys was surprised when her husband, who had kept quiet about his intentions before the vote, revealed that he, too, had opted for the Greens.
"The Green Party's campaign hit the mood of these elections," Mr. Marn says. "There was a rejection of politicians as negative, as a damaging influence. But the ecologist was seen as positive, as wanting to win for himself but [also] to do something positive for Mexico."
Homero Aridjis, a prominent Mexico City environmental activist, says the Green Party was mistakenly dismissed by many as just another small party promoted by the PRI to siphon off support from the larger opposition forces. But these elections showed the Greens to be a genuine force for environmental issues, he adds.
Mr. Aridjis says that none of the larger parties had a specific environmental program. He says having the Greens in Congress and in Mexico City's Assembly should help highlight environmental issues. "I've always said Mexico needs a strong Green Party for this very reason, to insist that the government not disregard the public's environmental demands at every turn anymore," he says.
A new forestry law approved in April is a prime example. "Despite heavy opposition from [the public], the government pushed through a law favoring foreign paper companies and the promotion of damaging eucalyptus plantations," he adds. "With Greens in Congress, that should be less easy."
Green leaders say they will fight for a reform of the recent forestry law, defeat of a proposal to open up Mexico's biosphere reserves to private management, and tougher environmental-inspection regulations in Mexico City. Party leader Gonzlez Torres says the Greens favor "modifying" NAFTA, the free-trade agreement, to make it more "just" to Mexico.
The party's long-term goal is nothing short of changing the way the society works. "We have to exchange our ruinous values emphasizing competition, individuality, and materialism, for values of cooperation, community, and spirituality," says Gonzlez Torres, who was the Greens' 1994 presidential candidate and a candidate for mayor of Mexico City in this election.
"We'll be working hard over the next three years [before the 2000 election] to convince more Mexicans we are a viable alternative."