Zedillo's Subtle Party Reform

Mexico City comedians puckishly ask nightclub audiences to compare and contrast President Ernesto Zedillo with Tarzan. The similarity? "Both are surrounded by animals!" The difference? "Tarzan can make his obey!"

Indeed, the chief executive's own Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) abounds with political creatures who snarl at liberalizing changes impelled by their leader. No critter flashes sharper fangs than Puebla State Gov. Manuel Bartlett Daz, who aspires to succeed Mr. Zedillo at the end of 2000. Mr. Bartlett's slashing attacks on the PRI for conceding elections to opposition winners is only exceeded by his savaging the government's "foreign-inspired" market-oriented policies.

Such aggressiveness aside, Zedillo has already begun laying the groundwork that he hopes will favor a successor congenial to the continued opening of Mexico's economy and political system. That's one reason the Aug. 2 gubernatorial elections in three states proved so important. Rather than cheer on the kind of vote-fixing deftly engineered by Bartlett in past elections, Zedillo demanded above-board counts. While scoring thumping triumphs in Oaxaca and Veracruz, the PRI lost the Aguascalientes statehouse for the first time since the party's founding in 1929.

Although disappointed over the Aguascalientes defeat, the president believes that fair races enhance his standing and that of reform-minded PRI members.

Indeed, many observers used to lambasting the PRI as "boss-ridden," and "corrupt," are still scratching their heads over the party's having accepted the loss of both the Mexico City mayorship and its Chamber of Deputies' majority a year ago. Zedillo realizes, however, that honoring opposition victories won't ensure the PRI retains the presidency. As a result, he has championed the party's selection of five of its 10 gubernatorial aspirants this year in open primaries - a mechanism the PRI will probably use to choose its next presidential candidate.

Zedillo has encouraged such an openness by giving up the dedazo, after dedo or "finger," by which incumbents traditionally anoint party nominees. He insists that the winner of a free-wheeling primary will command more legitimacy than a handpicked insider. He's also betting that rank-and-file citizens - once given the choice - will opt for a progressive over a Bartlett-type dinosaur.

Besides transparent tallies and a popularly chosen PRI candidate, economics figure prominently in Zedillo's formula for success. Thanks to his tough, astute program, the economist-turned-politician not only pulled his nation from a deep recession in 1995, but has spurred eight quarters of continuous growth. He hopes this figure will have soared to 16 when the voters decide upon his successor in mid-2000.

Furthermore, the president has placed Guillermo Ortiz Martnez, a Stanford PhD and free-marketeer, at the helm of the quasi-independent Central Bank. In naming Mr. Ortiz to a multi-year term, Zedillo has signaled the likelihood that Mexico will pursue responsible monetary policy well into the next administration.

Zedillo's plans could fail either if already sluggish oil earnings, which account for 38 percent of the federal budget, plummet further or if the Mexican Congress forces Ortiz from office over the raging controversy on whether to expend $65 billion to bail out the country's motley banking sector. Moreover, as a result of the Aug. 2 elections, the opposition holds seven of 3l governorships, plus city halls in scores of urban centers.

Still, the landscape is littered with the reputations of those who misjudged Zedillo's ability to achieve his goals. When the next presidential contest rolls around, Zedillo - rather than bloodthirsty detractors in his own party - may well wield the whip. And if the PRI can't win a clean fight, the no-nonsense president will deliver the reins of office to the winner, regardless of his party label.

* George W. Grayson is a professor of government at the College of William & Mary, in Williamsburg, Va. He wrote 'Mexico: From Corporatism to Pluralism?' (Harcourt-Brace, 1998.)

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