Shock Waves in Mexico

Mexico's ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party may survive the political earthquake that is shaking the PRI to its foundations. But neither the party nor Mexican politics can ever be the same.

The damage to the party that has led Mexico virtually unchallenged for 60 years would have been severe enough with its candidate, Carlos Salinas de Gortari, squeaking by with scarcely 50% of the vote. That PRI leaders, who control the nation's electoral machinery, were still dribbling out vote totals more than 24 hours after the constitutional deadline for a full report fed suspicions among many Mexicans that the PRI leaders were trying to steal one more big election.

Without an official vote, rival candidate Cuauhtemoc Cardenas, a dissident PRI member who represented a coalition of leftist political parties, claimed the lead, and no one could authoritatively deny his claim. The other major candidate, Manuel Clouthier of the right-wing National Action Party (PAN), conceded--though he declined to say to whom.

The PRI has been losing its grip on power for the last 20 years--partly because the nation is more sophisticated and better educated, partly because Mexico is in its worst economic crisis since the Great Depression of the 1930s. With inflation and unemployment recently at record levels, many Mexicans turned on the corrupt ruling party. The result was, even if the vote totals have indeed been padded, a bare majority for a party accustomed to 70% or 80% of the vote.

Mexico's last seriously disputed election in 1910 led to the first great social revolution of the 20th Century. Millions died, and the nation was in chaos for a decade. To date, the PRI's rivals on both the left and the right have been careful not to discuss any such aftermath for this latest election. Still, the PRI must walk on eggs now, emphasizing conciliation, compromise and the sharing of power.

So far Salinas is saying the right things. In a brief speech claiming victory late last week, for example, he told his party's leaders that there is "a new political reality" in Mexico. He acknowledged that some PRI candidates for the Mexican Senate and Chamber of Deputies probably would lose to candidates of the right or left. He urged supporters to accept these defeats graciously as a recognition of a new Mexican "pluralism."

What's more, Salinas seems to mean what he says. He seems determined to promote change despite the opposition of many older PRI leaders who lead with arrogance and muscle. In fact, one theory for the slow vote count is that it took time for Salinas backers to win a struggle for an honest tally against old-line politicians who were determined to pad the ruling party's vote.

No matter what election officials produce by way of a final vote, Salinas is likely to govern under a cloud, assuming that governance will be possible. That is a tragedy for Mexico, because his plans to deal with the country's economic crisis are sound and realistic. Salinas has discussed taking more of the economy out of government hands and putting it into the private sector. He wants to encourage more foreign investment in Mexico and broaden economic competition. Such talk runs contrary to the nationalist appeals of leftists like Cardenas. They even worry some conservative PAN supporters in the Mexican business community, who fear competition from U.S. or Japanese businessmen. But they are more in step with the economic realities of the late 20th Century, and they represent the best hope of allowing Mexicoto work its way back to economic health.

Salinas' strong suit is his skill as a technician. Now he and Mexico must hope that he has been hiding skills as a master politician. It will take both to guide Mexico through the long process of digging out from its political earthquake.

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