Ambassador Santiago Oñate
"Mexico in 2000: A Leap Ahead or a New Crisis?"

March 14, 2000

Héctor Cárdenas

As Mexico prepares for the July 2 presidential elections, the question on everyone's mind is whether 2000 will herald a step forward in Mexico's transition, or a step back to the ritual economic crises that Mexico has experienced at the end of the last four administrations. This was one of the issues that Santiago Oñate, Mexico's Ambassador to the United Kingdom, addressed before a packed room of faculty and students on March 14.

Santiago Oñate

Oñate, a former PRI attorney general for the environment and Secretary of Labor, gave a candid account of the challenges facing Mexico as the elections draw near. The central challenge is clear, according to Ambassador Oñate: to ensure that the election is perceived as fair and clean while maintaining economic stability to avoid a replay of the 1994 Mexican peso crisis, which sent the economy hurtling into a recession.

Mexico has made some important strides in this regard. Electoral reforms undertaken during the present administration have endowed Mexico with a modern electoral system. Elections are now run by an independent, non-partisan federal electoral institute. Campaign finance reform has meant that the campaigns of all the parties are underwritten with public funds. Moreover, this electoral season has seen more equal media coverage of candidates running for the presidency. This is in contrast to previous elections in which the media heavily favored the ruling PRI candidate.

The PRI itself has democratized significantly. Gone is the institution commonly referred to by Mexicans as "el dedazo," in which the outgoing President hand-picks the PRI candidate. This time around Mexicans had the opportunity to choose the PRI's candidate in open primaries held in November 1999. The result was a surge of interest in the party that, at least for some time, raised its poll numbers from the low thirties to the high forties.

The cumulative effect of these changes in Mexican politics is that "for the first time since 1929, it is impossible to predict who will win the presidential election," concluded Oñate. The most likely outcome, he added, is that no one party will simultaneously control both the executive and legislative branches, a state of affairs that, though common in the United States, is a novelty in Mexico. The PRI had firmly controlled both branches of government until it lost the house of deputies to the opposition in 1997.

Oñate seemed confident that Mexico would continue to fare well economically. The economy has been doing well lately, registering continued growth of approximately 5.2 percent in the last quarter of 1999, and inflation has been lowered to 11 percent, within striking distance of single digits. Central bank foreign currency reserves were a healthy $33.6 billion in January up from $31 billion a year before, and the rise in oil prices has meant a boon to the beleaguered federal budget. The Mexican currency has remained stable, and even appreciated slightly in the last few months.

For Oñate the real risks and opportunities for Mexico will come after, not before, the elections. The risks are those entailed by a divided government in which no single party has a clear majority in Congress. Although this prospect worries some Mexicans, the experience since 1997 has shown that a divided government can work if there is sufficient room for political parties to compromise.

Major opportunities for Mexico are in the areas of further political reform, a negotiated settlement in Chiapas, and a much-needed overhaul of the tax system. The entering government, Oñate believes, will have a chance to move beyond the realm of electoral reform, and undertake broader political reform. The most important political challenge for Mexico in Oñate's view is the search for a new system of political accountability and transparency. Without deep reforms to improve the relationship between government and citizens, Mexico's transition will be incomplete.

From left: Isaac Mankita, CLAS Projects Coordinator; Santiago Oņate, Ambassador of Mexico to the U.K.; Professor Jose Canela-Cacho



 

 

 

 

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