"Mexico in 2000: A Leap Ahead or a New Crisis?"
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.
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
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,
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
to the opposition in 1997.
Oñate seemed confident that Mexico would continue to fare
well economically. The economy has been doing well lately, registering
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
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
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
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
reforms to improve the relationship between government and citizens, Mexico's
will be incomplete.
Isaac Mankita, CLAS Projects Coordinator; Santiago
Oņate, Ambassador of Mexico to the U.K.; Professor Jose Canela-Cacho