Mexico's Ruling Party Sees The Dominoes Start To Topple

The crumbling foundations of Mexico's once invincible political machine, the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), are about to suffer new blows. On July 6, a throw-the-rascals-out backlash by Mexico City voters is expected to hand control of the vast capital to the center-left Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD). That will give Cuauhtemoc Cardenas, the PRD's mayoral candidate, a high-profile platform to launch a year-2000 bid for the presidency--a prize many Mexicans believe was stolen from him in the 1988 election by PRI fraud.

More alarming for the PRI is the possibility, polls indicate, that elections for the federal Chamber of Deputies on July 6 will end its six decades of rubber-stamp control over the lower house of Congress. If that happens, President Ernesto Zedillo Ponce de Leon will have to cut deals with opposition legislators to pass every bill he sends to Congress. Major parties' platforms reflect the widespread belief that Mexico has little option except to pursue free-market policies. But in the lower house, which must approve the annual budget, the PRD will push for increases in social outlays and the minimum wage. And the National Action Party (PAN), having ended its former collaboration with the government, will try to curb political favoritism in spending.

OFFICIAL CORRUPTION. The worst nightmare for the PRI, though, is the likelihood that opposition legislators will unleash probes into official corruption. Even the government's own investigations have already uncovered shocking scandals, including evidence of police and military links to international drug smuggling. Now, scrutiny by independent congressional investigators of long hidden abuses could inflict deep damage on the ruling party. An early focus could be on possible irregularities in the sale of hundreds of state companies. "The PRI's feet are slowly but surely being knocked out from under it," says political scientist Federico Estevez.

Why, then, is Mexico's stock market up 22.4% in dollar terms so far this year? Many foreign investors are drawn by the economy's momentum after four quarters of growth. But local investors who are helping buoy the market also reflect a profound change in political attitudes. Mexicans are losing their fear that, after 68 years of PRI dominance, an end to its corrupt and repressive rule might bring instability. Instead, many see the revelations of drug trafficking and corruption as a positive sign: the start of a painful but necessary cure, rather than coverup, of a rotten system. "Most people feel you can't achieve accountability in government without this kind of muckraking," says Estevez.

What's particularly significant is that, for the first time in this century, most Mexicans expect the elections to be honest, polls show. In one survey, 52% said they believe an opposition majority in Congress would provide a valuable--and in Mexico, almost unheard-of--check on the power of the PRI-controlled presidency.

There's reason for this newfound faith in elections. Reforms enforced by the Federal Electoral Institute, an independent watchdog, have winnowed fake names and dead people from voter rolls, and radio and TV time is being allocated more equitably to candidates. Parties are now financed mainly by federal funding, and they must document their spending. In the race for mayor of Mexico City, all three candidates caved in to public pressure and revealed their financial assets.

Such dramatic changes might not have happened so quickly, says sociologist Federico Reyes Heroles, had the country not suffered so badly from the 1994 peso devaluation. Fed up with two decades of economic crises, Mexican voters appear likely to send the PRI a harsh message at the polls.

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