Politics not as usual in Mexico

Candidates for 2000 plunge in early as growing democracy defiestradition of one-party rule.

Every night on Mexican television, the smiling, boyish governor of the Gulf state of Tabasco sings the praises of his four years in office. He wraps up an ad showing schools, roads, and clean environment with the words, "Tabasco: actions, not words."

Why is Roberto Madrazo Pintado doing this? Quite simply, he wants to move up to Los Pinos, Mexico's White House, in 2000. And, with a dozen more governors, senators, and other leaders jostling for the same address, Mr. Madrazo knows he has no time to waste.

Mexico is embarking on an uncustomarily early and open presidential campaign, analysts say, because the country has become more democratic and pluralistic under President Ernesto Zedillo, though he's not seen as strong.

"In part this early campaign is happening because of a certain perceived weakness of the president of the republic," says Francisco Marn, director of political studies at the Center for Opinion Studies in Guadalajara, Mexico.

"But it is also part of a process in which the electorate is awakening and demanding these changes. Voters see the real possibility that someone from [a group] other than the party that has governed for the last 70 years can be elected, and candidates are responding by jumping into this new competition."

In the past, Mexico's presidential and gubernatorial candidates have been chosen either by the president himself, in the case of the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), or by other top leaders behind closed doors.

Americans are accustomed to hearing plenty about obscure presidential hopefuls as much as two years before an election. But most Mexicans living today have known only the system in which the president - for seven decades a member of the PRI - has handpicked his successor in an honored tradition called the dedazo, or "fingering."

Primary successes

But, in Mexico City's 1997 mayoral race, the opposition Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) tried an open primary, which delivered a winning candidate, Cuauhtmoc Crdenas.

Last year the PRI for the first time turned to the open primary to select its gubernatorial candidate in the northern border state of Chihuahua. The PRI shocked the opposition National Action Party (PAN) by taking back from it the governor's chair - the first time the PRI won back a state it had lost to the opposition. At the same time the PRI lost the governor's chair in Aguascalientes to the PAN.

The electoral changes in Mexico are resulting in more open campaigns and fewer contested outcomes.

"All the movement around the presidential race really isn't much earlier than in the past, it's just that now it's out in the open," says Joel Estudillo of the Mexican Political Studies Institute.

Remembering an 'earthquake'

Mr. Estudillo recalls the "earthquake" that shook the country's political foundations six years ago when one aspirant to Los Pinos called a press conference to air his disappointment at not having been "fingered" by then-President Carlos Salinas de Gortari. "That went against all the PRI's internal rules."

Though none of the political parties has made a decision yet, most observers expect the PRI to use the primary to select its presidential candidate - especially since President Zedillo insists the days of the dedazo are over.

The PRD could also use the open primary to choose between its two most likely candidates: Mr. Crdenas and congressional leader Porfirio Muoz Ledo. The PAN, with a tradition of allowing the party faithful to elect their candidate, seems least likely to adopt the primary.

The PRI appears best positioned to benefit from a primary election, since it is still Mexico's most "national" party with strongholds in all of the country's diverse regions. A PRI open primary would practically be a first-round national vote and would likely give the winner a huge advantage in terms of exposure and momentum, some political analysts believe.

But a primary runs the risk of seriously dividing the ruling party between tried political leaders and technocrats, nationalists and globalists, the so-called "dinosaurs" and modernists.

The PRI has a half dozen often-mentioned presidential hopefuls: three governors, including Tabasco's Madrazo, and three Cabinet members including Interior Minister Francisco Labastida Ochoa, who - dedazo or no - is considered Zedillo's pick. A primary would likely be held in September or October - almost a year before the July 2000 election - if a spring party convention chooses that route.

Meanwhile, would-be residents of Los Pinos are jumping into the ring. Last week Mexico City's Crdenas said that, if he had to decide right now, he would say "yes" to a candidacy. His earlier-than-expected musings have been forced on him by Mr. Muoz Ledo's own early candidacy, he says.

Mexico is learning that, in a widened political field, the early bird can catch the worm. Vicente Fox, governor of Guanajuato, is likely to receive the PAN's nomination after more than a year of campaigning. "The early campaign has worked well for Fox," says political analyst Marn. "The other hopefuls are realizing these are new times and are following his lead."

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