Mexico's Democratic Reform Threatened by Strongman Politics

SANIBEL ISLAND, FL -- Mexico's presidential succession is turning into a clash of egos. The Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) is coming apart after seventy years in power, but opposition parties remain weak. In the institutional vacuum, politics is returning to an era of caudillos--strongmen with devoted personal followings--locked in a pitched battle for the presidency and its spoils. The big question is whether the contenders will temper their personal ambitions enough to avoid plunging the country into turmoil.The PRI is suffering an inevitable process of attrition as it loses support among urban, educated voters. Opposition parties already govern every major city and many of the most important states. The PRI has lost control over urban political machines and patronage, sharply curtailing its ability to deliver votes in the July 2000 election.Yet opposition parties remain weak. The center-left Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), which has the second largest number of representatives in the Chamber of Deputies, has been unable to coalesce into an effective alternative. This spring, the contest for the party presidency turned so bitter that an internal election had to be annulled because of electoral fraud. Nothing could have been more embarrassing to a party whose very name evokes the struggle to democratize Mexico.Though the center-right National Action Party (PAN) is holding together much better, it is facing a different kind of limitation. Traditionally a party of the middle class, it is having difficulty making inroads among the country's poor majority. Until it does, it has little prospect of winning a presidential election.In all three parties, strongmen are taking advantage of the institutional vacuum. With the PRI a pale shadow of its former self, Tabasco governor Roberto Madrazo is challenging outgoing president Ernesto Zedillo's choice of successor. Opinion polls suggest he may succeed, drawing on slick television ads that portray him as a rebel against the system.In fact, Madrazo is the old system's last gasp. He became governor by spending $72 million --some 60 times the legal limit--to buy the election. And his allies include some of the shadiest forces in Mexican politics. One is former president Carlos Salinas, whose brother accumulated millions of dollars in Swiss bank accounts, and was recently convicted of masterminding a political assassination. Another is fugitive financier Carlos Cabal Peniche, who contributed $5 million to his gubernatorial campaign. A third is Carlos Hank Gonz‡lez, a PRI power broker and Salinas crony who is under investigation by the United States and Costa Rica for ties to drug cartels.Faced with the threat of a major step backwards in Mexico's democratic transition, the two main opposition parties are under a lot of pressure to negotiate an alliance. Yet here again, powerful egos are getting in the way.The two principal founders of the PRD--Mexico City mayor CuauhtŽmoc C‡rdenas and PRD congressional leader Porfirio Mu–oz Ledo--are fighting amongst themselves. Though Mu–oz Ledo stands no chance, he is nonetheless tarring C‡rdenas as a man who "runs a terrible city government." C‡rdenas, who has been dogged by Mexico City's seemingly intractable problems, seems just as hell-bent in his pursuit of the presidential sash once worn by his father in the 1930s. Jumping the gun on his own party, he accepted the nomination of fringe party. Now he's insisting on a primary election to choose the candidate of the proposed opposition alliance, even though the PRD's own internal primary a few months ago became a source of ridicule.That has led to an impasse with the PAN, which has turned to a populist to try to break out of its traditional middle-class straight jacket. Vicente Fox, governor of Guanajuato, has a huge lead over C‡rdenas in the polls. Not surprisingly, he is insisting that an alliance candidate be chosen by polling methods that make fraud impossible.Part of Fox's appeal is that his state is prospering. Guanajuato is enjoying an economic boom, with 4.2% growth, more than twice the national average, and the lowest rate of unemployment in Mexico. A businessman and former president of Coca-Cola Mexico, Fox nonetheless has a common touch. Shunning coats and ties, he talks of creating new wealth in order to share it more widely.Most Mexicans favor change. Yet unless the opposition unites, polls suggest the PRI could prevail yet again. Should it do so with Madrazo at the helm, the process of reform will be thrown into reverse, and a deeply divided Mexico will move back toward the chaos of the early part of the century, when the caudillos made of Mexico a playground for their ambitions.Andrew Reding directs the North American Project of the World Policy Institute.

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