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Ruling From a Presidential Bunker : Mexico: Zedillo appears to have learned little from the past, tinkering with the system while 85 million citizens burn.

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<i> Denise Dresser is a professor of political science at the Autonomous Technological Institute of Mexico. </i>

Mexico’s economic and political morass proves that the country has outlived its system of centralized one-party rule and the dedazo --the outgoing president’s selection of his successor.

Upon taking office last December, President Ernesto Zedillo promised that the system would change. Unfortunately for the country and its people, there are no signs of significant improvement, and the accumulated daily turbulence of the past seven months is breeding cynicism and anger.

When former President Carlos Salinas de Gortari passed the torch to Zedillo, he knew that economic difficulty lay ahead but believed that the Yale-trained economist’s impeccable technical credentials would be enough to maintain Mexico’s stability. The collapse of the peso and subsequent financial disaster were perhaps more than the most brilliant economist could have avoided, but Zedillo’s political clumsiness and erratic maneuvering have made a bad situation worse. Salinas was wrong: Economic and technical expertise are not enough.

Zedillo’s lack of political savvy is a personal flaw. But his insulated and elitist governing style reflect the age-old vices of the political system itself.

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Since the inception of the Revolutionary Institutional Party (PRI) 66 years ago, Mexico’s presidents and their cliques have been able to govern above and beyond the law. The arrival of highly trained economists to political office under Salinas made governance more efficient but not more accountable. Even under the reign of Mexico’s best and brightest, the traditional ways of doing politics prevailed.

Salinas had postponed an inevitable devaluation in order to leave office with flying colors, and no other group or institution had the power or the autonomy to question his judgment. The hyper-centralized nature of the political system allowed Salinas to place personal prestige before economic prudence, and as a result, 85 million Mexicans are bearing the brunt of austerity measures unprecedented for the hardship they have imposed.

Yet, instead of learning from the mistakes of his predecessors, Zedillo is reproducing them. For months, the president has been content to rule with a bunker-style mentality, surrounded by a compact team of technobureaucrats obsessed with stabilizing the economy. Supported only by a select group of bankers, exporters and financiers, the president is governing for the upper tier of Mexican society. Zedillo believes that future economic growth will be enough to trickle down, purchase social peace and alleviate pressures for more extensive political reforms. This was Salinas’ credo.

Politically, too, Zedillo is emulating the same logic that brought Salinas up short in Chiapas. Instead of reinventing the system he inherited, Zedillo is tinkering with it. He pledged to promote clean elections, only to throw his wholehearted support behind fraudulently elected PRI governors in the states of Tabasco and Yucatan. He promised judicial reform, but then used the judiciary to arbitrarily persecute his political enemies. He has talked a great deal about establishing the rule of law and “modernizing” the Mexican presidency, but, just like Salinas, Zedillo has been selectively legal and selectively modern.

The problem with Mexico isn’t so much the men who govern, but the lack of rules to govern by and the absence of institutions to rule with. What needs to change in Mexico are the mechanisms by which presidents are selected, Cabinet members are appointed, power-holders are held accountable and government policies are submitted to public scrutiny. The country can no longer afford to have its decisions made by insulated and isolated elites that cater to special interest groups without the input of opposition forces and against the grain of popular preferences.

Democracy will not come to Mexico as the result of supposedly optimal policies prescribed by self-appointed saviors bent on economic stabilization. The twilight of the PRI as a way of life will occur only when consensus-building with the people, pact-making with opposition parties and the universal application of the rule of law become a daily ingredient of institutional life. In a country where governability is becoming a scarce commodity, Zedillo must recognize that it’s not enough to offer to do good. Unless Zedillo translates his promises into concrete changes in the way the political system has malfunctioned for decades, Mexico’s road to hell will be paved with the president’s good intentions.

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