Salinas Needs A Landslide And An Honest One

They may be the first elections a Mexican president ever really had to worry about. On July 7 and Aug. 18, Carlos Salinas de Gortari and his long-ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) need to win sweeping majorities in countrywide voting for Mexico's Chamber of Deputies, half of its Senate, and seven governorships. At stake are key elements of the proposed free-trade pact with the U. S., such as constitutional reforms on land ownership, that will need a two-thirds majority in Mexico's congress. And to ensure the choice of a like-minded successor when his term ends in 1994, Salinas needs to show PRI's machine pols that his free-trade strategy gets votes.

Most PRI candidates are likely to win big. But for the first time, they also need to win honestly. If the PRI blatantly rigs elections, as in the past, it will give ammunition to U. S. free-trade opponents. Chances for approval of a trade pact by the U. S. Congress will be riding on opinions north of the border on issues ranging from Mexico's environmental mess to dirty politics. "There is some question of the suitability of Mexico as a partner in this economic marriage," says Rep. Don J. Pease (D-Ohio), a free-trade foe. "There's going to be a lot more focus on the political process in Mexico than ever before."

POLITICAL SHENANIGANS. In Nuevo Leon, a northern industrial state that the PRI has festooned with election banners, Monterrey Mayor Socrates Rizzo seems likely to win an early race for governor on July 7, even without cheating by the PRI. But winning fair and square may be harder for PRI candidates in some other Mexican states on Aug. 18, when the rest of the country votes. In the central state of Guanajuato, for one, gubernatorial candidates of the conservative National Action Party (PAN) and the left-of-center Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD) are running strong. And in San Luis Potosi, the PRD and PAN are backing a single opposition candidate. The loss of either state would create strains between Salinas and PRI political bosses. But the PRI could lose credibility if it rigs the votes, as it did last November in local elections in Mexico state, which borders on Mexico City. Party shenanigans there ranged from ballot-burning to migrating voting booths.

Opposition parties also complain that the Bush Administration, although it has made democracy an issue in relations with countries from the Soviet Union to Nicaragua, keeps mum about Mexico's shortcomings. "There's no pressure from Washington to clean up elections," says Jorge Castaneda, a political analyst with close ties to the PRD. In the trade talks, the strong executive authority created by the PRI's political near-monopoly is an advantage for Salinas. It allows him to shape Mexico's negotiating position with little pressure from other parties and interest groups. But this is also a liability, says Luis H. Alvarez, president of the PAN, because "the executive cannot claim to be speaking for the entire nation."

Pease and 25 other U. S. congressmen hope they can remedy one complaint of Mexico's opposition parties: that Salinas and his coterie of technocrats have kept them in the dark about trade plans. The Americans plan to organize a two-day seminar in Mexico City in late July, giving politicians, intellectuals, and others a chance to discuss trade and related issues.

So far, Salinas has scored a political success by offering Mexicans a vision of the future that opponents can't match. The risk is that he shares responsibility with only a small group of collaborators. If his strategy falters, he could lose support within the PRI and open the 1994 presidential succession to rivals who don't share his vision. That would be a setback for Mexico's trading partners, too.

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