Mexican President Backs Economic over Political Reform

Article excerpt

EMBARKING on his fifth year at the helm, Mexican President Carlos Salinas de Gortari vowed in his State of the Nation address Nov. 1 to "consolidate" the economic gains won with his free-market reforms.

The annual address is mostly a back-patting and stock-taking exercise. Often, though, there are clues to major programs ahead. Opposition parties held some hope that in his last year before becoming a lame duck president, Mr. Salinas might tackle democratic reform with the same vigor he has applied to the economy, which has been the overriding focus of his presidency. Salinas has brought four consecutive years of economic growth, cut inflation to the lowest rate in two decades, created a fiscal surplus, and negotiated a free trade agreement with the United States.

But sifting through this year's 2 1/2 hour speech, analysts find little indication of political change.

"He didn't address the key problem: Mexican elections are not credible," says John Bailey, a Mexico specialist at Georgetown University. "They're `octopus elections.' There is so much obscuring ink in the water {voter registration manipulation, alleged fraud, etc.} not even the {members of the ruling party} know if they really won or not."

What Salinas did propose - without giving details - was greater disclosure of campaign financing, limits on election expenditures, and an effort to give all parties more equal access to the media. But this is seen by critics as a knee-jerk response to opposition complaints of fraud and unfairness in recent state elections.

In Michoacan state, for example, the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) candidate vastly outspent his opponent, doling out money for public works projects. There was no public accounting, but electoral observers estimate that the victory in Michoacan cost the PRI more than $20 million (about one-third of what US presidential candidate Ross Perot spent in his national campaign). Three weeks after the PRI candidate took office, street protests opposing electoral fraud forced him to step down.

Salinas, whose party has controlled the government for more than six decades, has implemented some election reforms. In 1990, a new electoral code was signed into law. And voter identification cards with photos are now being distributed for the 1994 presidential elections. While political pundits laud these steps, history suggests their value may be limited.

"Mexico has never had the same rules from one election to the next since 1940. Every president changes the rules in the name of `perfecting democracy,' " Mr. Bailey notes.

The problem resides in the electoral commission, which like most government institutions is staffed by PRI loyalists, analysts say. …