Mexico's New Politics

President Ernesto Zedillo shared a podium with opposition leader Porfirio Muoz Ledo last week, and Mexican politics may never be the same. Both the president's State of the Nation speech, and Mr. Muoz Ledo's response, were generally perceived as thoughtful, tempered statements that indicate partnership is possible.

Partnership across party lines has had no place in Mexico for most of the last seven decades. The Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) reigned supreme. In recent years things have been changing, with the conservative National Action Party (PAN), in particular, making inroads at the state level. The change went national on July 6, when the PRI lost its majority in the lower house of Congress.

Despite the appearance of harmony between Mr. Zedillo, who represents a reformist wing of the PRI, and Mr. Muoz Ledo, formerly a prominent PRI leader and now an outspoken adherent of the leftist Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD), the political road ahead promises to be rocky. Can the opposition majority, which comprises disparate political views, hold together well enough to accomplish much? Can the president and Congress reconcile differing economic priorities? Will the PRI members of Congress, still by far the largest single delegation, turn obstructionist?

On the first question, the immediate outlook is cautiously hopeful. All opposition parties have an interest in pushing through procedural reforms that will allow Congress to move away from the era of one-party dominance. So far, they have devised a system of rotating chairmanships to regulate the flow of legislation. And they're likely to join forces to further dismantle what has been a nearly all-powerful presidency. The funds long set aside for discretionary use by the president, for example, could be a target.

But when it comes to substantive policy matters - taxes and social spending, for instance - parties like the PAN and PRD will almost surely diverge.

For his part, Zedillo is determined to continue economic liberalization - free market reforms, privatization, etc. Those policies are particularly important now, as Mexico recovers from its 1995 recession. Its economic growth rate, and foreign investment figures ($11 billion estimated this year, up from $7.6 billion last), are brightening. The president has asked that the market-oriented reform policies he favors be put above politics.

That isn't likely. The opposition wants to follow through on its popular campaign promise to cut the country's value-added tax. At the same time, both the president and large elements of the opposition want to increase social spending to address the needs of Mexico's numerous poor. The fiscal contradictions are obvious, and the possibility of concerted action to help the poor is undercut by the left's inclination to disparage as tokenism any such effort by Zedillo or the PRI.

The situation calls for strong leadership. But Zedillo, for all his admirable reform ideas, has never shown himself capable of - or even very inclined toward - shaping political opinion. In Mexico's new politics, however, the ability to rally the public, and other politicians, behind policy will be crucial. The opposition, in the person of Muoz Ledo, has a master political operator.

The opposition aside, the president could have major problems keeping his own party members in line. While he has reformist allies in PRI ranks, disaffected elements in the long-dominant party are enraged that their power base is crumbling - and that Zedillo has let it happen.

The worst crumbling of power in Mexico, however, is the undermining of legitimate authority by corruption - especially payoffs and bribes by drug-trafficking cartels. On this front, the president and legislators should act in concert to give Mexico the operational law-enforcement structure it needs.

Without question, all involved in Mexico's new governance have ample reason to make it work. Now, if only reason can temper partisan emotion.

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