After 50 Years, the 'Outs' Have an 'In' in Mexico : Salinas: The president's pledge of a political opening has a happy debut in Baja California. The trick is how much to allow elsewhere.

Wayne A. Cornelius is director of the Center for U.S.-Mexican Studies at UC San Diego, and co-author of "Mexico's Alternative Political Futures," recently published by the center.

Nearly lost amid the jeers and raised fists of the leftist opposition that interrupted President Carlos Salinas de Gortari's first state-of-the-nation address last week was one of the most striking and significant political developments in recent Mexican history: the emergence of a tacit strategic alliance between the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) and its principal antagonist for half a century, the conservative National Action Party (PAN). Nothing symbolized the changed political face of Mexico more dramatically than Salinas' bringing the newly elected PAN governor of Baja California Norte, Ernesto Ruffo Appel, from Mexico City to his inauguration in Mexicali on the presidential plane. No less revealing was the sight of the PRI-affiliated president being welcomed as a hero by thousands of ardent PAN supporters, whose gratitude to him for recognizing Ruffo's electoral victory could hardly be contained.

The PAN's new willingness to collaborate openly with the PRI was signalled two weeks ago when the PRI-sponsored version of electoral reform passed in Congress. The constitutional amendments will have the effect of guaranteeing the PRI's continued control of the Congress beyond 1991, when the next congressional elections will be held, and restoring to Salinas the ability to amend the constitution without having to depend on opposition-party support. The dominant faction in the PAN apparently acceded to this formula in exchange for promises of other changes (such as a new system of voter registration, to reduce padding by "phantom" voters who invariably support the PRI).

On the left, partisans of Cuauhtemoc Cardenas' had demanded a far more fundamental change--elimination of government control over the federal and state entities that run elections and certify the results--and showed no willingness to negotiate with Salinas on alternatives.

With their hard-line position of "all or nothing," as Salinas characterized it in his state-of-the-nation address, the Cardenistas continue to lose ground both to the government and to the PAN. Widening internal divisions threaten the Cardenistas' capacity to mount effective challenges to the PRI in state and local elections, while the government promotes further fractionalization of the left by bolstering small leftist splinter parties and encouraging the formation of additional ones.

After 11 months of Salinismo, it is becoming clear that political reform under this government will be neither as rapid nor as across-the-board as the opposition hoped and the PRI Old Guard feared. Salinas is still seeking broader support, both within his own party and among the opposition parties, for more sweeping changes in the political system. He has proven to be a bold risk-taker, but he is unlikely to proceed much further with electoral reform until he gets that broader consensus. He will not try to manufacture one by imposing a radical, Gorbachev-style political reform project of his own.

Meanwhile, as he reminded Congress last week, "We have set our course and are in command." Salinas' actions since entering office have greatly strengthened his presidency, and he is in no mood to make concessions to an opposition group that continues to question his legitimacy. He has opted for an incrementalist approach to political reform, to ensure a minimum level of cohesion within the PRI-government apparatus while still responding credibly to the clamor for political change emanating from the public and the opposition and from the reform wing of the PRI itself.

Salinas will attempt to steal the Cardenistas' economic banner by keeping inflation low, restoring moderate growth and especially by demonstrating that his policy of privatizing most state-owned enterprises has a direct social payoff. In the remainder of his term, the sale of enterprises like Telefonos de Mexico will give the government a huge infusion of capital while freeing up additional billions that would have been used to subsidize state companies--funds that Salinas intends to invest in basic human services.

The danger is that as criticism of his government's economic strategy fades and as pressure on the PRI to reform itself diminishes, overall political reform will begin to lag too far behind the pace of economic change. The already fierce resistance to anything that threatens powerful vested interests within the PRI apparatus will stiffen. In this scenario, the left and its causes will be the big losers, since the political opening--such as it is--will remain skewed toward the PAN, whose victories in state, local and congressional races are more likely to be recognized. The conservative tug on the government's economic policies will have no effective counterpoise.

The PRI will suffer, too, since an unreformed party will be ill-prepared to compete in the 1994 presidential election without large-scale, highly disruptive irregularities.

The shock of the PRI's reverses in the 1988 national elections and the loss of a state governorship to the PAN in 1989 opened a historic opportunity to create a much more competitive political system. A broader coalition for change must be forged in the next five years, however, if that possibility is to be realized.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World