End of a Mexican institution?

For the first time since 1929, opposition parties could take the presidency, if they can work together.

For decades, it has been taken for granted in Mexico that no matter who runs for president, the candidate for the Institutional Revolutionary Party is going to win.

After all, the PRI has been in power since 1929.

Now, as pluralistic democracy takes hold, there's growing anticipation that the July 2000 election race will shape up into a genuine contest. The only hitch is that in order to win, Mexico's splintered opposition groups will have to unite behind a single candidate.

It's a road that a growing number of Latin American countries are following.

In Chile, a coalition including the Socialists and Christian Democrats has governed since the Pinochet military dictatorship ended in 1989. Brazil's President Fernando Henrique Cardoso rules through a coalition ranging from the center-left to the right. And in Argentina, a center-left alliance is the principal challenger in October elections to the Peronists of President Carlos Menem.

A waning of extreme ideologies, coupled with a desire to forge new majorities from constituencies with wide-ranging interests, is leading the way to Latin America's political coalitions, analysts say. Mexico's opposition has got the message. Eight parties, including the conservative National Action Party (PAN) and the leftist Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), are negotiating on what would be Mexico's first broad alliance against the PRI.

Party leaders hope to reach an agreement by the end of this month. But there are no guarantees the groups can overcome ideological differences, big egos, and mutual distrust to come together behind one candidate.

"It's going to be very hard to land this thing," says Delal Baer, director of the Mexico Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "It's a pipe dream to think that the PAN and PRD can come to agreement on an economic policy."

Pushing them forward is the realization that a divided opposition almost certainly guarantees a PRI victory next July - and thus a PRI-run Mexico until 2006.

Polls consistently show the PRI can count on 35 to 40 percent of the vote. Opposition parties lag behind in hardcore support, but generally match the ruling party's numbers or even move ahead under the alliance scenario.

Although Mexicans like the idea of an opposition alliance, according to various surveys, many of them also believe it would be like trying to mix oil and water. Any agreement would mean that two of Mexico's highest-profile presidential aspirants - PAN populist Vicente Fox and PRD founder and leftist standard bearer Cuahtmoc Crdenas - would have to agree to back each other.

For Americans, it would be a bit like imagining conservative Republican Pat Buchanan and liberal Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) joining forces.

Mr. Fox, who recently resigned as governor of the central Mexican state of Guanajuato to campaign full time, has come out in the past in support of privatizing Pemex, Mexico's government-owned oil monopoly.

Mexico's oil industry was nationalized in 1938 by Mr. Crdenas' father, a former president. Perhaps not coincidentally, Fox did not mention Pemex when he unveiled his campaign platform earlier this week.

Social policy, the troubled southern state of Chiapas, and exactly how the alliance's presidential candidate would be chosen are also keeping party negotiators busy. An opinion poll published this week in the Mexico City daily El Universal shows Fox defeating PRI frontrunner Francisco Labastida Ochoa in a one-on-one contest by 53 to 47 percent. The same poll put Crdenas well behind Mr. Labastida.

Some critics lambaste the alliance proposal for placing electoral victory above ideology. In a campaign appearance Tuesday, the PRI's Labastida lauded his party as "the only one that can win the presidency on its own, without having to go around making alliances or changing its ideology."

And some observers wonder whether the different factions would be able to run a government.

"The big question is what happens the day after" a coalition win, says Ms. Baer. She recalls the 1997 congressional elections, when for the first time the PAN and PRD won a majority and formed a "grand alliance" to take congressional leadership positions. "At the first debate on economic issues, it all fell apart," Baer says. "I can imagine an alliance victory [in the presidential vote] and then six months later it all breaks down."

Such a scenario is not necessarily bad, says Baer, who raised hackles with a recent Foreign Affairs article on the potential for political instability in Mexico. Rather than sinking into "ingovernability" - the result most PRI critics foresee with an alliance in power - Mexico would turn to flexible coalition building depending on the issue at hand.

"The PAN and PRD might unite on campaign reform, for example, and then the PAN and PRI on economic legislation," Baer says. "They're going to have to learn to compromise or face gridlock."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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