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PERSPECTIVE ON MEXICO : The Thinkers’ Revolution : Seventy people of all political stripes are pressing an agenda for democratic transition; Sunday’s vote is the test.

<i> Jorge G. Castaneda is a political scientist and longtime critic of the PRI and the Salinas government. He hosted the first meetings of Grupo San Angel. </i>

It might appear surprising, or even outrageous, to state that Mexico’s upcoming presidential election, being touted as the most crucial, contested and clean vote in the country’s history, is not really very important. Yet that is precisely the point emerging from one of the most innovative phenomena of the current campaign: A new, broad-based group of concerned citizens has been trying, with some success, to impress upon the political Establishment that next Sunday’s election is only a starting point, a necessary first step but not a sufficient condition for democratic transition in a country where democracy has yet to see the light of day.

The coalition of academics, writers, union leaders and former Cabinet officials, which has come to be known as Grupo San Angel, for the traditional cobblestoned neighborhood of Mexico City where its first meetings were held, has its origins in a series of grass-roots and intellectual undertakings that sprang forth in Mexico over the past few years. But it was the unease or open frustration that developed throughout Mexico as a result of the Chiapas uprising and the assassination of candidate Luis Donaldo Colosio that gave impetus to the formation of Grupo San Angel in early June. It has since met with and had open, free-wheeling discussions--informal, usually over lunch at members’ homes--with the three leading presidential candidates, Cuauhtemoc Cardenas, Diego Fernandez de Cevallos and Ernesto Zedillo, and with President Carlos Salinas de Gortari and Interior Minister (and chief electoral official) Jorge Carpizo. Last week, it met with a small number of Mexico’s wealthiest and most powerful businessmen, and is negotiating an encounter with the Zapatistas in Chiapas.

Because of the high profile of members and guests, the group has received a torrential volume of publicity and become something of a household word, at least among the political and intellectual elites. So much so that some suspect--falsely, without question--that only an enterprise inspired by and managed by Salinas himself could emerge so spectacularly in such a short time.

Grupo San Angel includes writers, such as Carlos Fuentes, Laura Esquivel and Paco Ignacio Taibo II; historians, such as Enrique Krauze and Lorenzo Meyer; former Cabinet members and PRI sympathizers, such as former Foreign Minister Bernardo Sepulveda, former Finance Minister David Ibarra, former PRI leader (and Salinas’ 1988 campaign manager) Enrique Gonzalez Pedrero; labor leaders, such as Elba Esther Gordillo, head of the 1 million-member teachers’ union; and social activists, such as Father Gonzalo Ituarte, vicar of San Cristobal de las Casas in Chiapas. The political opposition is represented by Cardenas sympathizers, such as Adolfo Aguilar Zinser and Amalia Garcia, and National Action Party heavyweights, such as Vicente Fox, who ran for governor of Guanajuato in 1991. It is the first such collection of political currents, ideological preferences and professional diversity in recent Mexican history that actually acts together, instead of simply signing manifestoes. It is, as some critics say, elitist, but this is, unfortunately, inevitable in a country where politics has always been a occupation for elites only. Elitist attempts to transform the traditional features of Mexico’s politics have tended to perpetuate those features.

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Grupo San Angel, reflecting the country’s desperation for democracy, is determined to succeed on its two basic purposes: to contribute to as clean and widely accepted an electoral process as possible; and to broker an agreement among the three main candidates on what will happen after Sunday, thereby defusing the tension surrounding the election itself. It has achieved partial success on both counts, but so far has not been able to accomplish all of what it set out to do.

Regarding the election procedures, the group formulated an initial set of recommendations, which were read to President Salinas on July 18. These included opening up the terribly biased mass media to debate and talk shows on the main national issues of the day; reducing the number of polling precincts by two-thirds, thereby allowing opposition parties to watch all of them; posting electoral rolls outside voting booths two weeks before the elections so that voters could check for themselves whether they were actually registered; removing a large percentage of district and state election officials, who continue to be government-party appointees and notoriously dishonest; and instructing the new, independent and consensus-based Federal Election Council to issue an opinion immediately before and after the vote on the cleanliness of the entire process and the accuracy of the result.

The group believed that if these suggestions were heeded, most if not all of the pending points of dispute would be laid to rest, and the main candidates would then consider the elections to be free and fair.

The recommendations were only partially accepted, and part of the still highly questioned character of the electoral process stems from this incomplete acceptance. The number of precincts was not reduced; the electoral rolls were posted only in public buildings--that is, in only 4,000 places, instead of the 96,000 voting sites; the TV programs were broadcast, but not in prime time; the local officials were not fully substituted; the election council has not yet agreed to speak out on the quality of the process.

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The group felt that the reasons--mainly of a technical or timely nature--given for only partial compliance were understandable but not persuasive. Indeed, the difficulties involved seemed manageable; the timing obstacle, however, is both the creation and the burden of the president and his party. They have come around to contemplating a clean election now that it may be too late to hold one.


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