When Mexico's Francisco Labastida Ochoa announced last week that fighting corruption would be the central theme of his presidential campaign, it wasn't long before the snickering began.
Mr. Labastida is the most recent in a succession of presidential candidates for the long-ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) to single out corruption as one of the country's most damaging evils.
In response to Labastida's declaration, the Mexico City daily La Jornada carried a front-page cartoon quoting him as saying, "There is no room in the PRI for the corrupt!" Surrounding him were fat-cat politicians, who added, "Right, not one more would fit," and "We're full."
Yet all joking aside, Labastida deserves credit for putting the spotlight on corruption, which international surveys show is at its worst not just in Mexico but in other countries of Latin America. In a 1998 survey, the University of Gttingen, in Germany, named Mexico the sixth most corrupt country in the world, worse off than Latin neighbors like Colombia and Bolivia.
The problem, analysts add, is that as the man who would perpetuate the PRI's rule into the next century, Labastida would be the standard bearer of the very governing system he would have to change. The PRI is already the longest-governing regime in the world today.
"Labastida's call to root out corruption is respectable and necessary, but coming from the PRI candidate it is highly questionable, even laughable," says Francisco Javier Acua, a law professor at Mexico City's Anahuac University South.
"He belongs to a regime that since 1929 has established and perfected the way politics is done in Mexico," Mr. Acua says. "In this system, buying off is a central pillar, and that is the mother of corruption in Mexico."
While naming corruption Mexico's most serious challenge, Labastida called on the PRI to set an example by having all of its candidates for office in 2000 present personal financial statements - not required by Mexican electoral law. He also wants to create a separate ministry for public security. That cabinet delegation would be charged with cutting the strong connection between justice authorities and criminals.
In response to Labastida's "crusade," third-time presidential candidate Cauhtmoc Crdenas of the center-left Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) says a sincere anticorruption effort should start with investigations into the beneficiaries of Mexico's 1995 banking and credit crisis and financing of the 1994 PRI presidential campaign. Money used in President Ernesto Zedillo's successful 1994 campaign has been linked to Mexican banker Carlos Cabal Peniche, who is in an Australian prison awaiting extradition to Mexico on charges of bank fraud and money laundering.
Mr. Crdenas also wants the leading presidential candidates to sign a letter demanding a full investigation of former President Carlos Salinas de Gortari. Mr. Salinas has been charged with no crime, but most Mexicans consider him the embodiment of a corrupt system.
His brother Ral Salinas, one of his closest collaborators during his 1988-94 presidency, is now in prison for planning the 1994 murder of a PRI politician, while other investigations have revealed he has hundreds of millions of dollars stashed in Swiss bank accounts.
With Labastida's victory in July's vote looking more probable every day, political analysts say it is not the election of another PRI president, but Mexico's increasingly pluralistic society that will be the greatest force against corruption.
What Labastida is proposing "is nothing new - we've heard it since the 19th century," says prominent Mexico City political analyst Lorenzo Meyer. Calling for candidates' financial disclosure is almost meaningless, he says, because Mexico has no authority to hold politicians accountable.
"What is different now is that Mexico is starting to be plural" with a growing percentage of the population outside the PRI's patronage system, says Mr. Meyer. "Instead of just accepting corruption as part of life here, these Mexicans are saying, 'We are fed up!" Yet as long as one party, the PRI, holds onto power starting at the top with the presidency, he adds, "the impunity that is built into the system will continue."
Acua also cites the rise and diversification of Mexico's civil society as the counterweight to corruption. He says the biggest risk facing Mexico is not just that the PRI holds onto the presidency until 2006, but that it win back the absolute majority it lost in Mexico's Congress for the first time this century in 1997. "That would set us back years," he says.
That is not where many Mexicans want to go, as they remember past examples of high-profile corruption. There was Jos Lpez Portillo in 1976, who made Arturo Durazo police chief of Mexico City. Mr. Durazo was later charged in the US with drug trafficking.
The Durazo case and other corruption excesses of the Lpez Portillo years were so egregious that incoming President Miguel de la Madrid called for a "moral renovation" focusing on police and judicial authorities. Charged with implementing the program was Samuel del Villar, now attorney general for Mexico City, who became so disillusioned by the lack of support for the "renovation" plan that he left the PRI in 1988 for the PRD.
President Zedillo entered office in 1994, declaring a reform of the Mexican judicial system and an end to impunity his top priority. He did achieve an important reform of the Mexican Supreme Court, making it more independent of the executive branch, but the reforms stopped there.
"Zedillo's reform of the Supreme Court was spectacular, but it only touched the Everest of the justice system and didn't reach down to the lower levels where the majority of Mexicans come in contact with it," says Meyer. "At that level, Zedillo didn't do anything."
To really rid Mexico of corruption, something just short of a constitutional assembly is needed. Many different players in Mexican society need to rally behind national anticorruption reforms, says Acua. But he says a "national round table" akin to the Moncloa Accords Spain reached after the Franco dictatorship is unlikely as long as the PRI holds "so much power in its fists."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society