Mexico's Next Election Could Be A Real Horse Race

Mexicans watching nightly television these days can be forgiven for assuming presidential elections are imminent. On one channel, there's the front-runner, opposition governor Vicente Fox of Guanajuato state, a former Coca-Cola Co. executive, promising voters honest government for a change. On another, Tabasco Governor Roberto Madrazo airs expensive TV ads in hopes of winning the nomination of the long-ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). Meanwhile, the apparent PRI favorite, Interior Minister Francisco Labastida, turns a series of staged media events in Washington into a virtual ad campaign.

Mexican voters won't head to the polls to elect a new President until July, 2000. But the early election furor underscores just how radical a shakeup is under way in Mexican politics, as the country segues from 70 years of single-party rule. In the past, an endorsement from the PRI's sitting President was the key to winning. But today, politicians from all three major parties are starting early, spending big, and appealing to voters rather than party insiders. "We're witnessing the Americanization of Mexican politics," says Federico Estevez, a political scientist at the Autonomous Technological Institute of Mexico.

EASING THE PAIN. Indeed, this presidential election will be the most competitive in Mexican history. The election could also turn into a referendum on Mexico's economic future. None of the many candidates vying for the top spot wants to substantially roll back Mexico's economic liberalization--or pull the plug on the North American Free Trade Agreement. But the rivals differ on how much the government should spend to ease the social pain of the last decade of reforms. And they split over how much further to push privatization and deregulation of the economy.

As the debate over the economy unfolds, the PRI faces a real chance of losing the presidency to one of two opposition parties for the first time since 1929. Inside the PRI, rival presidential candidates are openly vying against each other, too. Breaking with tradition, Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo has vowed not to handpick the party's candidate. Old-fashioned politicians determined to maintain the PRI's grip on power are facing off against new-style party technocrats. That could mean a crippling split.

For now, Mexican citizens are fascinated with democracy in action. More than 80,000 people have signed up to be "Friends of Fox," supporting the former Coke exec, who has won the biggest following so far with his trademark cowboy boots and vow to "boot" the PRI from power. If the election were held today, polls show the nod would go to Fox, who is running for the center-right National Action Party (PAN) nomination. He is a free-marketer who advocates a partial privatization of state oil monopoly Pemex. Other opposition candidates are founders of the center-left Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), Mexico City Mayor Cuauhtemoc Cadenas and Congressman Porfirio Munoz Ledo. In contrast to Fox, both want to slow down Mexico's move toward free markets.

One casualty of this push for greater democracy could be the Zedillo administration itself. Zedillo already risks becoming a lame duck ahead of schedule, as Congress becomes focused on the election. Although Zedillo still enjoys high public-approval ratings, his new effort to open up the state-run electricity utility may falter because Congress' attention is now more focused on the ballot box than on eventual energy shortages. That is frustrating for the president. But fostering Mexico's democratic transformation will turn out to be Zedillos' most important contribution.

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