Mexico Can't Drift Backward

After his reelection victory, President Bush plans to work harder both with Mexico and with the US Congress to deal with the massive flow of illegal Mexican immigrants into the United States.

The question is, though: Which Mexico will he be dealing with?

Mexican politics have become largely dysfunctional these days, despite hopes for major reform after 2000, a historic year that saw voters end the 71-year rule of the corrupt and patronage-laden Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI.

The main problem is that voters didn't go far enough to end the PRI's grip. While Vicente Fox, leader of the conservative National Action Party, or PAN, won the presidency, his reform ideas faced gridlock in a PRI-dominated legislature. He also mistakenly sought economic and social reforms first, rather than a better democratic institutional framework that would have forced Mexico's three major parties to make a full transition to a better democracy.

Fox's PAN lately has been losing many recent regional elections while the still-entrenched PRI has been rebuilding and gaining ground. This week, the PRI won two governor seats - in Puebla and the large border state of Tamaulipas - along with the mayor's race in Tijuana. In Sinaloa state, the PRI holds a very narrow lead at this writing (some results from last Sunday's election are expected to be thrown to the courts for resolution). And in Tlaxcala state (Mexico's smallest), the PAN appears to have won, but just by a hair, beating both the PRI and the left-wing PRD (Party of the Democratic Revolution), which had held the seat. In elections earlier this year, the PRI regained governorships in four out of six other states. And if Sunday's results stand, the PRI will hold the governorships of half of Mexico's 32 states.

That augurs well for the PRI's chances to retake the presidency, even though Mexico City's leftist mayor currently leads the polls for winning that 2006 race. The PRI's strong showing on Sunday, however, may swing more votes its way.

The PRI's comeback reflects the difficulties a country can have breaking out of an entrenched, corrupt bureaucracy, even if that bureaucracy was denied the president's office four years ago. And under Mexico's constitution, the president is limited to a single term.

A PRI resurgence does not bode well for reform in Mexico, which badly needs better rule of law, changes to its tax structure and energy sector, and a stronger crackdown on the drug trade.

Such reforms will help boost a sluggish economy and entice more poor Mexicans to stay home rather than migrate to the US.

After experiencing Fox's ineffective leadership and PRI's obstructionism, Mexican voters need to demand strong, honest leadership - and a healthy multiparty system.

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