Mexico's Political Earthquake

The Christian Century, July 19, 2000 | Go to article overview

Mexico's Political Earthquake


IT'S LIKE the Berlin Wall falling down," said one Mexican official about his country's July 2 election. "But the PRI lasted longer than the wall." A lot longer. In power for 71 years, the oxymoronically named Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, has had the longest continuous rule of any political group in the world. Under the all-pervasive PRI, party, government and presidency had become virtually synonymous; unions, industries and many other aspects of Mexican society fell under its control. But on July 2 its presidential candidate, Francisco Labastida, a prim, rather colorless bureaucrat, was decisively defeated by the charismatic Vicente Fox of the National Action Party/(PAN). Fox's call for change had caught fire with the Mexican people, who were fed up with the corruption and economic mismanagement--not to mention the assassinations and massacres--that had marred the PRI's seven-decade tenure.

Though primarily a businessman and rancher, the 58-year-old Fox is no stranger to politics. A former CEO of Coca-Cola's Mexican branch, he has served as governor of the state of Guanajuato and as a congressman. He is something of a maverick in his own party, which was formed in 1939 by a group of pro-business conservative Catholics concerned about the loss of church privileges and opposed to land reform. Fox knew that his party's base would have to be broadened much more if he were to have any chance of winning. He made good use of his marketing skills, and he bested Labastida twice in television debates. He was especially adept at appealing to young voters. He even wooed intellectuals on the left--and won a number of them to his cause, including the respected political scientist Jorge Castaneda.

Perhaps more surprising still is the fact that many members of Mexico's Base Christian Community movement--activists who seek to live by the precepts of liberation theology--voted for Fox. They "were being pragmatic and realistic," said Eric Olson of the church-related Washington Office on Latin America. Of course, many of their votes were more anti-PRI than pro-PAN. And some BCC activists voted for neither Fox nor Labastida, but for Cuahtemoc Cardenas of the center-left Party of the Democratic Revolution, who came in a distant third.

Some Mexicans say that Fox has a messianic complex and fear that he will try to replace PRI authoritarianism with a brand of his own. Hopefully, such fears are unfounded. For one thing, Fox's party will not have a majority in congress, and he will need to cooperate with other parties if he is to achieve some of the ambitious goals he has set--such as attaining 7 percent growth, creating effective antipoverty programs, revamping the educational system and devising a trustworthy justice system.

The PRI has never had much of an ideology other than self-preservation; it has, for example, both nationalized and privatized industries, depending on which seemed more advantageous at the time. But Fox too has shifted his position on a number of issues, leaving people to wonder just what his guiding principles are, if any. …

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