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With an Opposition Victory, Mexico Goes Modern

<i> Wayne A. Cornelius is director of the Center for U.S.-Mexican Studies at UC San Diego. </i>

With his government’s recognition of a decisive victory by the conservative National Action Party (PAN) in Sunday’s gubernatorial election in Baja California, there is no longer any doubt about President Carlos Salinas de Gortari’s resolve to pursue the political modernization of Mexico.

The historical and contemporary significance of this action can hardly be overstated. Surrendering presidential control of a state government shatters a 60-year-old taboo. Acknowledging the loss of a politically sensitive, economically critical border state sends a powerful signal to every state and local leader of the Institutional Revolutionary Party: Your candidates will continue to have all of the formidable organizational and financial resources of the national PRI machine and the federal government, but if they fail to win clearly and cleanly, their “victories” will no longer be guaranteed by Mexico City.

There is no question that the decision to cede power to the PAN in Baja California was made at the highest levels and in the face of strong resistance by state and local PRI leaders. Until the moment that their national chairman announced the party’s defeat in Baja, the state’s PRI leaders and their candidate for governor steadfastly claimed victory, and local newspapers were filled with paid advertisements placed by affiliated organizations affirming their party’s triumph.

The PRI candidate, Margarita Ortega Villa, is a new-generation politician with a reputation untainted by corruption, and she was an effective, high-energy campaigner. The national PRI and the federal government invested massively in her campaign. The fact that she was defeated in spite of all this testifies eloquently to the erosion of public confidence in the PRI and lends credence to Salinas’ own 1988 admonition to party militants: “We have to change, or someone is going to change us.” The poorly concealed efforts of some PRI operatives in Baja to pad registration rolls and manipulate the electoral process in other ways were counterproductive.

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The achievement of the PAN, for 50 years Mexico’s principal opposition party, should not be underestimated, either. It has succeeded in building a strong statewide organization in Baja California over the last three decades. Despite numerous electoral defeats, several of which were probably the result of PRI chicanery, the PAN maintained its credibility with voters as a worthy alternative to the government party. In addition to having a highly popular gubernatorial candidate--the former mayor of Ensenada, Ernesto Ruffo Appel--the PAN was smart enough this time to mute its criticism of the electoral irregularities and thus avoid giving the government a pretext for annulling the results.

The Mexican political system now moves into uncharted territory. For the first time, a PRI-dominated federal government will have to share power and resources at the state level with a government controlled by an opposition party. It will be another major test of Salinas’ skill to fashion a constructive relationship with the PANista government in Baja while rebuilding support for the PRI in that state. The leftist PRD (Party of the Democratic Revolution) also made a strong showing Sunday in the legislative elections in the state of Michoacan. If those Cardenista victories are not recognized by the government, there will be cries that Salinas’ commitment to political liberalization is highly selective. Indeed, it will be more politically disruptive for the government to concede defeat to the PRD, which is led by renegade former PRI chieftains, than to recognize the PAN’s triumphs.

To consolidate the gains accruing from his politically risky decision on Baja California, Salinas must now make rapid progress on the economic front. Otherwise, his political reformism will continue to be dismissed as a “let-them-eat-symbols” attempt to divert attention from his inability thus far to secure a major debt-relief deal and engineer a strong economic recovery.

The urgency of the debt problem has been greatly increased by this week’s political developments. If the U.S. government is truly interested in strengthening Salinas’ ability to manage the plethora of problems confronting Mexico, this is the time for strong leadership to break the current impasse between Mexico and its U.S. commercial bank creditors.

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With his recognition of a state-level opposition victory, Salinas has brought Mexico into a new era in politics. But to realize the exciting possibilities and opportunities inherent in this opening, Mexico must shake off its economic stagnation and start a new era of growth.


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