Mexico's Congress Turns From Lamb Into Lion

Mexico's imperial presidency is dead. Any lingering illusion that it might survive the end of a 70-year era of one-party rule by the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) was laid to rest as the country's new Congress held its inaugural session on Sept. 1. The four-party opposition bloc, which now controls a majority in the lower house, is forcing dramatic changes in the way Mexico is ruled.

The opposition will use its new clout to challenge everything from spending priorities in the 1998 budget to a $7 billion bailout of the country's toll-highway system that President Ernesto Zedillo Ponce de Leon decreed just before Congress convened. "We plan to call as many shots as we can in Congress," says Carlos Medina Plascencia, leader of the opposition center-right National Action Party (PAN) in Congress.

Suddenly, congressional lobbying is poised to boom. The opposition, which holds 261 seats to the PRI's 239, intends to reassert its rights to initiate and amend legislation. In former Congresses, packed with PRI legislators, more than 90% of all bills were presented by the presidency. Now, the Council of Business Coordination (CCE), an influential business umbrella organization, is setting up a legislative lobbying office. "We should have done this long ago--now, we really need to," says CCE head Eduardo Bours Castelo.

MOVING FAST. The Council isn't alone in adjusting fast to Mexico's changed balance of power. The Mexican Investment Board is racing to fill dozens of requests from U.S. companies that want to discuss foreign-investment issues with Mexican legislators. Congress plans to create its own research office to help draft bills and provide ammunition to challenge the executive branch led by President Zedillo.

Sparring has started in the first big fight, the 1998 budget. Legislators asked the administration to deliver it six weeks ahead of schedule. They need the time to amend it, since, constitutionally, it has to be enacted by Dec. 31. Opposition legislators from PAN, as well as from the left-leaning Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), the Workers' Party (PT), and the Green Party all want more social spending and tax cuts.

Intense budget scrutiny could open up a can of worms for Zedillo and the PRI. The opposition plans to rake over the President's multimillion-dollar discretionary spending funds. And it promises to open public investigations, always quashed by PRI votes in the past, into corruption.

Hyperactivity by a militant Congress could, of course, scare off foreign investors. But PAN congressman Santiago Creel Miranda counters with the argument that "an economy based on democratic decision-making is much more attractive to investors."

A bigger risk may be that while the opposition is united about purging the PRI state apparatus, it still has not found common ground on key economic issues. The huge spending programs that the left wants, for example, could cause Mexico's economy, now growing at a clip of 6% a year, to overheat. PAN's Plascencia acknowledges that there's work to be done by the opposition alliance. "We will have to build a consensus, issue by issue," he says.

All the same, many Mexicans--especially PRI militants--are in for shocks. The sight of President Zedillo sitting uneasily as opposition leader Porfirio Munoz Ledo delivered a scathing reply to the state of the union address was a stark reminder of the PRI's diminished status.

Mexico's feisty Congress will provide a fertile testing ground for the key issues that will dominate the next presidential elections in 2000. And it will give vital experience to a new generation of politicians long kept out of power by the muscled arrogance of the PRI.

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