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Mexico and Zedillo Pass a Crucial Test : Salinas’ candidate becomes his successor in Mexican national election

There were incidents of fraud and other voting irregularities, to be sure, and even angry protests during Mexico’s national elections last weekend. But overall the voting was peaceful, the ballot counting appeared to be honest and the voter turnout was an impressive 70%. All reassuring, given the turmoil--from guerrilla fighting to the murder of the ruling party’s presidential candidate--leading up to Sunday’s vote.

So Mexico’s 1994 elections must be regarded as another historic achievement for the government of outgoing President Carlos Salinas de Gortari, whose efforts at political reform had heretofore lagged behind his remarkable achievements in modernizing Mexico’s economy. Salinas has set a high standard for President-elect Ernesto Zedillo Ponce de Leon to match.

Not everyone was left happy, of course. Leftist opposition candidate Cuauhtemoc Cardenas insists he was the real winner of Sunday’s presidential balloting--that the 1994 election was stolen from him by fraud as many Mexicans believe the 1988 election was. But by virtually every measure--from independent exit polls to early quick counts to the all-important official results--Zedillo won a clear, though certainly not overwhelming victory over Cardenas as well as over Diego Fernandez de Cevallos of the rightist National Action Party.

Zedillo’s winning margin of less than 50% is not a particularly impressive total, given the fact he was the candidate of the powerful apparatus of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which has not lost a presidential election in more than 65 years. The PRI’s national network of veteran political operatives clearly pulled out all the stops for their man, including a few instances of the ballot-box stuffing and multiple voting for which the ruling party is notorious.

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But in the end the more than 35,000 Mexican and foreign election observers who fanned out to monitor 96,000 polling places reported that fraud or other problems (like mysteriously running out of ballots in certain places) occurred at less than 10% of the precincts. So the high-tech voting system Salinas spent $2 billion building worked to assure Mexico of an election that, while far from perfect, was fairer than any before it.

Although the irregularities on the fringes of his victory cannot discredit Zedillo, they won’t make his job any easier. They will reinforce the cynicism many Mexicans feel about the PRI and the political system it dominates. Zedillo will also take office as the first PRI president with less than a majority vote. And election results for Mexico’s Congress, whose members also were elected Sunday, indicate he will face opposition blocs that, if they combine against him, can stall his initiatives. All of those facts will serve as unprecedented checks on presidential power in Mexico.

But in Zedillo Mexican voters appear to have picked a president with the intelligence to govern effectively despite all these new problems. A Yale-educated economist who had been a member of Salinas’ Cabinet, Zedillo was hand-picked by the Mexican president to succeed the assassinated Luis Donaldo Colosio as the PRI’s standard-bearer. Although dismissed by many at the time as a cold technocrat, Zedillo seemed to grow a political personality during the campaign, articulating progressive new ideas to build on the Salinas legacy.

Intellectual and political progressivism was expected in economic policy, given the free-market liberalism and Ivy League training that Zedillo and Salinas share. But it could be even more important in politics, where Zedillo has promised to open up the Mexican governing process to eliminate official corruption and cede more power to Congress as well as to state and municipal governments.

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If he acts on his campaign promises, Zedillo will ensure that Sunday’s election is only the beginning of a modern, more mature Mexican democracy.


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