Mexico's One-Party System Is Dead : Salinas Must Be His Own Man, Igniting Reform From Ashes

Wayne A. Cornelius is the Gildred Professor of Political Science and director of the Center for U.S.-Mexican Studies at UC San Diego

Reflecting on the future of Mexico's one-party-dominated political system, Mexican political commentator Adrian Lajous recently observed: "The system is dead, but it doesn't know it yet."

By limiting Carlos Salinas de Gortari, the presidential candidate of the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), to a bare majority victory (18 percentage points below Miguel de la Madrid's share of the vote in 1982) and sending as many as 50 of the PRI's congressional candidates down to defeat in last week's elections, the Mexican people have sent their political Establishment a message that cannot be ignored.

Equally important, since the election Salinas himself has pronounced the one-party system dead, and has fought to have the opposition parties' legitimate victories recognized, against intense resistance from old-guard PRI leaders. As many of these leaders listened in stunned silence, Salinas acknowledged and encouraged the shift to a more pluralistic, competitive political system--"A new political reality for our nation, within which we shall coexist in harmony and respect."

During his campaign, Salinas had provided a blueprint for sweeping political reform, including radical changes in PRI procedures and the ways in which individual citizens relate to their government. But this would-be reformer was rejected by nearly half of the electorate, including those who felt most strongly about the need for political change.

Opinion polls and informal conversations with Mexicans at various income levels in cities and rural communities suggest that most simply did not believe Salinas' promises or doubted his capacity to deliver on them. They voted for opposition candidates--particularly Cuauhtemoc Cardenas, the leader of a coalition of left-wing parties and dissident PRI members--in a spasm of anger and disgust at the economic failures, corruption and vote fraud of the last three PRI-dominated governments.

They did not demand from Salinas' opponents a clear and plausible vision of alternative policies. Like U.S. voters who support third-party candidates, many Mexicans in 1988 were protest voters, concerned primarily with "sending a message," without seriously expecting--perhaps without even hoping--that Cardenas or rightist candidate Manuel Clouthier would become president. Most seemed genuinely surprised by the results.

The heavy turnout indicates that the average Mexican, however cynical and fed up, has not yet given up on the system. He still harbors some hope that something can be done to turn things around without violence and instability. But the better-educated, more sophisticated, urban-dwelling Mexican of today will settle for nothing less than real change in the political system. Salinas, who had repeatedly promised clean and credible election results, made a maximum effort to curb fraud by PRI apparatchiks. While numerous state- and local-level officials apparently did not get the message, or chose to ignore it, the 1988 elections for president and congressional seats undoubtedly were cleaner than the 1985 and 1986 state-level elections, which were marred by blatant PRI cheating and provoked a firestorm of criticism in Mexico and the United States.

This time a larger percentage of the violations seemed to result from sheer incompetence and inexperience with the more complicated procedures prescribed by a new electoral code. At the same time, that law, together with far more extensive scrutiny of polling places by opposition party representatives, made it significantly more difficult to commit fraud, especially in urban areas. The irregularities that did occur were probably not enough to affect the outcome of the election--at least in the presidential contest.

The seeds of public distrust were sewn long ago, however. In 1988 Salinas and his party paid the price for the electoral manipulations of 1985-86, which were criticized by Salinas himself.

Salinas' problems were particularly severe in the Mexico City metropolitan area, where he and numerous PRI congressional candidates lost by huge margins to the Cardenista front. The PRI's candidates have not polled a majority of the vote in Mexico City since 1979, and the capital has been hit harder by the economic crisis of the 1980s than has any other major region.

Paradoxically, another weak point for the energetic, 40-year-old Salinas was the youth vote. A Gallup pre-election poll showed Salinas as the preferred candidate of only 46% of first-time voters aged 18 to 24, and only 38% of full-time students. The hundreds of thousands of university students in Mexico City voted overwhelmingly for Cardenas.

While Salinas himself can connect effectively with young people, his party has failed to come to grips with the major generational shift that is now under way in the Mexican electorate. Surveys show that the PRI's support is now concentrated among older, poorer and rural-dwelling members of the population. The opposition parties draw most of their support from younger, more affluent voters--especially the urban middle class.

Salinas and his advisers recognized that to reverse PRI decline and restore government credibility and legitimacy the party must undergo a drastic overhauling. It must be reinvigorated by improving candidate selection, recruiting new cadres who can appeal to younger voters and the urban middle class, and giving greater autonomy to municipal-level PRI committees and government officials.

Many more opposition victories at local and state levels will have to be recognized, even if that threatens the PRI bosses' formerly secure allotments of positions. The corporatist monopolies that have been enjoyed by the PRI's "mass" organizations since the 1930s must be broken. Parallel structures of citizen representation must be allowed and even encouraged to develop, and alliances must be built with them. Procedures for selecting the PRI's presidential candidate must be modernized.

All this adds up to radical change--no less sweeping in its potential consequences for the Mexican political system than Mikhail S. Gorbachev's efforts to modernize and democratize the Soviet system. Salinastroika is fundamentally threatening to the "dinosaurs" in the PRI-government apparatus, as the immediate aftermath of this election has demonstrated. As described by one of Salinas' aides, "There are groups within the (official) party that do not want to acknowledge their losses, and they are fighting like hell. But Salinas is absolutely committed to recognizing opposition victories where they occur, come hell or high water."

Salinas' hopes for a quick, and therefore more credible, vote count were dashed by this internal resistance. But this is only the opening round in what is likely to be a protracted struggle between the forces of change and reaction in the PRI.

In this context the resurgence of the opposition, and particularly the left-of-center coalition led by Cuauhtemoc Cardenas, has created a great opportunity for Salinas. While the PRI's reduced majority in Congress will require Salinas to be more of a negotiator and coalition-builder than any other modern Mexican president, the election results provide exactly the kind of shock treatment that is necessary to induce PRI leaders to cooperate with Salinas' efforts to rebuild support for the party.

Salinas can use the success of the Cardenistas to demonstrate the vulnerability of the existing PRI organization. "It's the only way to frighten the traditional leaders who are holding back the party from changing," observed one member of the PRI's reform wing before last week's voting.

Salinas also faces major challenges from outside the official party: Initially, both Cardenas and Clouthier claimed victory, and there is a strong possibility of mass mobilizations and civil disobedience by supporters who won't accept the final, official results. Whether or not Salinas actually won the presidency by a majority or plurality of votes (his claimed margin of victory is consistent with the most reliable of the pre-election polls), he must now work hard to make the average Mexican believe that he won.

The timetable for the incrementalist political-reform project outlined by Salinas in his campaign has been greatly accelerated by the political earthquake that struck Mexico on July 6. He has the political skill and determination to turn this apparent debacle to his and the country's advantage. But Salinas must now move quickly, mounting the crest of the wave of change and showing that he is his own man, not compromised by reliance on the entrenched power-brokers of the "Revolutionary family."

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