Can Mexico's Opposition Parties Stop Opposing Each Other?

In Mexico, the opposition parties have steadily gained clout, thanks to a decade of democratic reforms. Today, they have a majority in the 500-seat lower house of Congress and hold 9 of the country's 31 state governorships. But the presidency, where power is concentrated, remains firmly in the hands of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI)--largely because of disunity among the opposition.

Finally, though, the big prize is within their grasp. Eight of the 10 opposition parties said on Aug. 31 that they would hold a primary in November to select a single Alliance for Mexico candidate to run against the PRI nominee in the next presidential election, on July 2, 2000. Also, they will field joint congressional candidates and are close to agreeing on a common government program to bridge the ideological gulfs among the main opposition groupings--the pro-business, center-right National Action Party (PAN) and the left-leaning Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD).

PLURALISM. The platform is artfully vague to reassure Mexicans fearful of radical change after 70 years of PRI rule. The opposition promises to continue Mexico's free-market system, while investing more in education and social programs. The parties have agreed, though, to put privatization on hold and to take strong measures to combat the corruption that has marked PRI rule.

Burying rivalries won't ensure victory next July. But it's an essential first step toward making pluralism work for the opposition, not the PRI. Consider the July election for the governorship of the State of Mexico. Two opposition candidates together won 55% of the votes, but neither obtained enough to beat the lackluster PRI candidate, who sailed into office on a 41% share. "The PRI is pushing this idea of a multiparty system so that it can hold on to power with a minority of the vote," says Vicente Fox, the PAN's presidential candidate.

The contest for the Alliance nomination could become so acrimonious that the opposition again blows its chances. Fox, the charismatic former governor of Guanajuato state, faces Mexico City's unexciting Mayor Cuauhtemoc Cardenas, the PRD's favorite son. Both feel entitled to the candidacy. But an Aug. 30 poll in Reforma showed that Fox, who once headed Coca-Cola Co.'s Mexico operations, could win about 39% of the vote and run neck and neck with either of the two main PRI hopefuls. By contrast, Cardenas would garner 25% or less, vs. the PRI's 47%.

Even if the primary isn't too bruising, some PRD and PAN members may not support an Alliance candidate from the other party. PRD diehards, for instance, may find it hard to back Fox in the general election: Even though the Alliance's platform advocates holding off on any more privatizations, Fox in the past has espoused eventual privatization of Petroleos Mexicanos, the state-run oil company. Likewise, some PAN members might find it anathema to vote for Cardenas, who has advocated greater state control over the economy and initially opposed the North American Free Trade Agreement.

Still, opposition officials say they're willing to compromise, in the same way politicians did in Chile and Spain, to complete Mexico's democratic transition. "We're not just trying to win the presidency," says PRD Secretary General Jesus Zambrano. "We're beginning to build a true democratic political system to put a definitive end to the one-party regime." If the Alliance holds, they will take a large step in that direction. But that's a big if.

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