MEXICO'S NEW GAME : POLITICS : A Dispirited Left in Search of a Cause

Wayne A. Cornelius is the Gildred professor of political science and director of studies and programs in UC-San Diego's Center for U.S.-Mexican Studies. His most recent book is "Controlling Immigration: A Global Perspective" (Stanford University Press, 1994)

Within two months, the peso loses more than half its value against the dollar, causing living standards for virtually all Mexicans to plummet. Inflation spirals from 7% in 1994 to at least 42% this year. Interest rates hit 110% and business bankruptcies soar; up to one million jobs disappear. Mexican officials plead with the U.S. government for a financial bailout and get one--but only after the deal has been collateralized with the proceeds from Mexico's most politically sensitive national patrimony--oil. Mexico's political elite is torn asunder, as hard-line "dinosaurs" and would-be reformers within the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) are left by President Ernesto Zedillo to fight it out among themselves.

A dream scenario for the Mexican left? Indeed, conditions exist for a resuscitation of the left not found in Mexico since 1935-36, when the stability of the regime was also threatened by an economic depression and open warfare between a new, reform-minded president, Lazaro Cardenas, and the man who handpicked him, Plutarco Elias Calles. Yet, over the last six decades, the left has failed to capitalize on many other opportunities handed it by Mexican history.

One of the most significant was the 1988 presidential election, when a coalition of leftist parties led by Cuauhtemoc Cardenas, son of Mexico's most revered former president, won at least 31% of the vote--and probably much more, if the count had been honest. Today, Cardenas and the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), which he founded in 1989, are often criticized for squandering a golden opportunity to consolidate the left as Mexico's second-most important political force. The PRD's congressional candidates collectively polled only 16.7% in the 1994 elections, and Cardenas ran a poor third in his second presidential bid.

Historically, the left in Mexico has been weakened by constant internal factionalism, fueled by ideological differences and personal rivalries. Such tensions persist within the PRD today, between the former left-wing PRIstas, led by Cardenas, who defected from the PRI in 1987-88 and PRD leaders who originated in Mexico's old-line communist and socialist parties.

But a far more serious constraint on the left today is the lack of a strong local party infrastructure. From its inception, the PRD has been dominated by Mexico City-based politicians and intellectuals for whom the provinces hardly exist. Central PRD leaders shortchanged local organizers in their allocation of the party's funds on the ground that scarce resources could most effectively be used to topple the PRI at the national level. The result is a party that is not equipped to win at the local and state levels, where opposition parties have their greatest opportunities today.

The leftist opposition has also made some major strategic errors. In the early years of the Salinas presidency, Cardenas' decision to maintain a strategy of permanent confrontation and delegitimation vis-a-vis the new government proved futile, as Carlos Salinas de Gortari's popularity soared and his economic policies began to show positive results. The highly personal vendetta between Cardenas and Salinas, which continued throughout Salinas' term, ultimately worked to the disadvantage of both, but the biggest loser was the PRD, which was systematically cut out of the deal-making between Salinas and the conservative opposition, led by the National Action Party (PAN).

In its early phase, the Zapatista rebellion in Chiapas appeared to be a catalyst for revival of the left, not just regionally but nationally. On balance, however, the Chiapas rebellion has been more of a political liability than an opportunity. It erupted precisely at the moment when Cardenas was striving to position himself as a more centrist politician on most key policy issues, in preparation for his 1994 presidential campaign. He could not move farther to the left, let alone endorse the strategy of armed insurrection against the government chosen by the Indians of Chiapas, without further isolating himself and frightening the electorate.

But the left's problems in recent years have not all been self-inflicted. Under Salinas, the government showed no inclination to negotiate seriously with the Cardenista left. Salinas' own contemptuous attitude toward the PRD was summed up in his public comment in response to protests by PRD legislators that disrupted his final state-of-the-nation address: "I neither see them nor hear them."

The behavior of the PRI-government apparatus in several key state and local elections signaled that it would never allow a Cardenista government to come to power, at least at the state level, anywhere in the country. During the 1992 gubernatorial election in Michoacan, a PRD stronghold, such huge resources were pumped into the PRI's campaign--it spent an estimated 80 U.S. dollars per vote--that the apparent goal was not just to defeat the PRD but also to humiliate it and destroy its credibility.

But in sharp contrast to his predecessor's stance, President Zedillo quickly sought a meeting with top PRD leaders and sent many other signals that he wanted to forge a non-confrontational, working relationship with the left.

Zedillo reportedly gave private assurances to PRD leaders that conflicts spawned by recent gubernatorial elections in the states of Chiapas and Tabasco, the results of which were strongly challenged by the PRD, would be settled in ways acceptable to the Perredistas . He delivered on that promise in Chiapas, forcing the elected PRI governor to take an extended and probably permanent "leave of absence." But in Tabasco, Zedillo's attempt to remove a PRI governor whose election was badly tainted by fraud was blocked by an open rebellion of local PRI militants.

Nonetheless, the drastically changed relationship between the incumbent president and the leftist opposition is unmistakable. With the PRI in an uproar over Zedillo's actions to distance himself and his administration from the party, he needs to build a broader base of support for his presidency--one that must include the PAN as well as the PRD faction that is disposed to negotiating with the government.

If Zedillo succeeds in severing the ties that traditionally have bound the Mexican state and the "official" party, the PRD would benefit from the resulting leveling of the electoral playing field. The left should also gain some credibility from the recent financial debacle, which seems to validate many of its criticisms of the neo-liberal economic strategy pursued so tenaciously by Mexico's ruling technocrats since 1989. The Cardenistas had warned that a headlong rush into free-market economics, unaccompanied by a strong effort to construct a social safety net for the millions of Mexicans left behind, would exacerbate Mexico's severe income distribution problem. While recognizing the need to make Mexico a full player in the global economy, they warned that excessive dependence on U.S. markets and on speculative U.S. capital to finance the new, export-led development model could lead to disaster. This critique rings much truer today.

Mexico needs a viable leftist opposition as a source of pressure for greater micro-level government intervention in the liberalized economy and to help keep the country's poverty and inequality problems within tolerable bounds. A well-institutionalized left can also exert effective pressure to accelerate democratization. Indeed, during the Salinas presidency, some of the key political reform "concessions" made by the government may have been motivated by a desire to neutralize or preempt the criticism of the Cardenista left.

If it is to remain a viable contender in the new, much more competitive environment created by the economic crisis and last year's electoral reforms, the PRD must reinvent itself. The party cannot survive with a self-destructive caudillo at its helm. The PRD urgently needs to be reorganized around its moderate, pragmatic wing, currently led by Porfirio Munoz Ledo. It needs a more convincing economic message--one that goes beyond calling for a moratorium on repayment of foreign debts and zeros in on the fundamental "fairness" issues raised by the neo-liberal economic reforms of the last nine years.

Finally, the PRD must recruit better political candidates, as well as local-level cadres who are less intransigent and less tarnished by former service to the PRI. Unfortunately for the left, in the search for talent, it is the conservative opposition that usually comes out ahead.

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