Beyond Mexico's Watershed

Political strife is predicted after the election hailed as a triumph for democracy, but old-school ties could prevail

What are the prospects for Mexican democracy after the July 6 national elections, heralded as the cleanest in this country's troubled history?

Not very good if the predictions of local Cassandras prove correct - namely that Mexico City's Mayor-elect Cuauhtmoc Crdenas will devote the next three years to heaving brickbats at President Ernesto Zedillo's liberalization program while using city hall to launch a presidential bid for 2000. Naysayers insist that the resolute president will give as good as he gets.

Even as Mr. Crdenas rolled to a 2-to-1 victory in the capital, Mr. Zedillo watched his long-dominant Revolutionary Institutional Party (PRI) lose its majority in the 500-seat Chamber of Deputies. There, Crdenas can line up 123 lawmakers to impede presidential efforts to broaden political and market- focused reforms. Its name aside, the Revolutionary Democratic Party (PRD) exhibits the centralized authoritarianism that used to characterize the PRI, now full of diversity as progressives vie with old-line "dinosaurs" for party control.

Crepe-hangers also believe that Zedillo will try to hobble Crdenas. After all, the mayor relies on the federal government for 38 percent of the city's budget. This means that Zedillo and Finance Secretary Guillermo Ortiz Martnez, another presidential aspirant, can wield the budget knife to undercut Crdenas's pledge to create an "attractive and viable" capital.

Zedillo could activate PRI-linked unions, garbage collectors, and street vendors to assist in the surgery. An upswing in work stoppages and demonstrations would exacerbate the crime, unemployment, traffic jams, and pollution that afflict chilangos, nickname of the city's 8.5 million inhabitants.

PRI mossbacks are spoiling for a fight with Crdenas, scorned as a "Judas" for having bolted their party a decade ago. Even amid cries for revenge, ambitious personal agendas may prevent a Zedillo-Crdenas deadlock that would frustrate the 70 percent of capitalinos who laid aside their animus toward detested politicians to vote for democratic change.

Once the confetti stops falling, Crdenas will realize that he won not on the basis of his crazy-quilt platform but because voters sought to punish a party that resembles Tammany Hall writ large. They abhor seven decades of single-party hegemony, deplore the self-serving demagogy and duplicity of former President Carlos Salinas, and resent the economic debacle that erupted three weeks after Zedillo's December 1994 inauguration.

Crdenas evinces a messianic drive to follow his late father, Lzaro Crdenas - Mexico's counterpart to FDR - into the presidential residence where he cavorted as a child. His prospects will evaporate if he makes a hash of running Mexico City, which - along with contiguous Mexico state - constitutes 20 percent of the nation's population. Hence, self-interest as much as statesmanship argues for his proferring Zedillo a handshake instead of a fist.

In contrast to Crdenas's goals, Zedillo appears ready to leave the political maelstrom for the quiet of academia at the end of his six-year term - but only after he has enlarged the political opening that facilitated opposition gains last Sunday. He's also determined to further modernize Mexico's rebounding economy in which huge enclaves of nepotism, featherbedding, and horse-and-buggy techniques exist alongside world-class factories producing autos, TV sets, and computers for export.

The executive branch remains Mexico's dominant force. Still, the president requires congressional support to achieve his objectives. At first blush, Zedillo's affinity for the magic of the marketplace would seem to draw him toward the pro-business, moderate National Action Party (PAN) rather than the screechy, US-bashing PRD.

Undoubtedly, in his search for votes, Zedillo will make overtures to the right. Yet, despite picking up two more state houses in early July, the PAN is still smarting from its anemic showing in Mexico City (15.9 percent), attributable in part to the party's having "cohabited" with the now-execrated Salinas. Moreover, tensions now buffet the PAN as aggressive businessmen who arrived on the scene in recent years - so-called "Northern barbarians" - compete for influence with party traditionalists. The latter, who embrace a capitalism tempered by social-Christian ideals, blanch at the flamboyant, personalist style of newcomers such as Guanajuato governor and ex-Coca Cola executive Vicente Fox, another serious aspirant to succeed Zedillo.

While devising ways to propitiate the PAN, Zedillo won't write off the PRD. Several factors buttress this assertion:

Even in the face of stinging defeats, the PRI will boast shrewd leaders in the next Congress typified by Arturo Nuez and Mariano Palacios, low-keyed consensus-builders.

The ambitious Crdenas comprehends that, as much as it might titillate leftist firebrands, pursuing statist, protectionist, big-spending policies will consign Mexico to the backwater of the global economy.

Their personal, generational, and ideological differences notwithstanding, Zedillo and Crdenas enjoy a productive rapport through their membership in the informal community of graduates and friends of the National Polytechnic Institute (IPN).

Lzaro Crdenas founded the IPN in the 1930s as a prep school and university for gifted, impoverished students. A poor kid from Mexicali, Zedillo won a scholarship to IPN where he excelled. IPN provided the academic trampoline that propelled young Ernesto to a Yale PhD before his meteoric rise in Mexico's financial bureaucracy.

Zedillo and Crdenas are by no means pals, but they have gotten to know each other through the IPN connection. This important personal tie - added to Crdenas's compulsive urge for the presidency and Zedillo's unwavering quest for political and economic change - could spur cooperation rather than conflict between Mexico's two most powerful politicians.

While confounding card-carrying pessimists, such an accord would benefit Mexico's long-exploited masses and demonstrate the merit of tolerance - the key value for advancing from a formal to a real democracy.

* George W. Grayson, professor of government at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Va., is author of the forthcoming "Mexico: Corporatism to Pluralism?" (Harcourt Brace).

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