Democracy-The Only Game in Town?

Article excerpt

Seven decades of political subjugation, marginalisation and frustrated hopes for the left in Mexico will come to an end in December, when the enigmatic Cuauhtemoc Cardenas and his Party of the Democratic Revolution take power in Mexico City.

AFTER YEARS OF BITTER CONFLICT with the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), a less belligerent and more pragmatic Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) now has an opportunity to demonstrate that it can offer the serious left-wing alternative that Mexico has lacked for most of this century.

The 'mayor' of Mexico City,' Cuauhtemoc Cardenas, probably has at most two years in office before turning his attention seriously to the millennial presidential contest. Those two years will be crucial to the prospects for a transfer of power at the national level. The capital represents an enormous political gamble for the PRD.

The level of centralisation in Mexican economic, social and political life means that the city has attracted a population well in excess of its physical and economic limits. It faces, as a consequence, problems of poverty, crime, pollution, congestion, drugs and police corruption - to name but a few that go well beyond those associated with most capital cities. To make things worse, Mexico is only just recovering from a protracted economic crisis, and the city felt the impact at least as keenly and sharply as anywhere.

Crime is a prime example. One estimate suggests an 80% increase in reported crimes between 1994 and 1996, and both of Mexico's major television channels are able to fill two hours of daily prime time with graphic images and stories of crime and delinquency.

Without entering into a sociological debate, it is clear that a 7% decline in GDP as in 1995 - and the lack of an effective social security network are correlated to this increase. Cardenas needs to be seen to be tough on crime, and not just the causes of crime, if his administration is to be viewed positively.

One question that the PRD will face is whether to continue to use the army in police operations. Mexico City's police force is ostensibly corrupt, largely inefficient, and has been exposed as increasingly tied into organised crime networks. The use of the army, however, has not only led to demonstrations by the police, but has also raised some serious human rights questions.

For a party well versed in human rights issues and activity, this presents something of a dilemma, especially if reform of the police - as previously -- proves unsuccessful. But it is unlikely that voters will be too concerned with human rights questions while the city continues to decompose around them, and the PRD will have to adjust to this political reality.


A similar dilemma arises with the environment. Mexico City suffers from appalling air quality, a lack of sewage treatment facilities, massive industrial pollution of rivers and waste disposal problems, to name but a few problems. The health consequences of the world's highest level of consumption of poisonous gases and lead, among other things, are obvious.

Recent governments have made some effort to deal with this problem, most famously through restrictions on the use of motor vehicles. But the structural causes relating to the concentration of industry, the massive population and long-term underinvestment in public transport - make solutions very difficult.

Pressures on expenditure through public transport investment would be mirrored by pressures on income through any move to decentralise industry or impose environmental taxes. The city is already heavily - and increasingly - indebted. The PRD is unlikely to risk tax rises to tackle environmental problems until the presidential election has taken place, so there is little prospect of any dramatic improvement.


These and related problems may simply defy resolution, no matter how committed and earnest the government. …