June 30, 2000


Two Mexicos — The Real Choice In Mexican Elections Does Not Appear On The Ballot

By Andrew Reding

Mexico will have not one, but two elections on Sunday. One might as well be in Spain, the other in Peru. Virtually the only thing they have in common are the names of the presidential candidates.

In fact the true contest is between two incompatible Mexicos, locked in an all-out struggle for political dominance.

One is the new Mexico, which has grown rapidly with the end of the Cold War and the advent of economic globalization. That Mexico is urban, educated and increasingly cosmopolitan.

The other Mexico, which until recently dominated the whole country, has now retreated to its bastions in the countryside and small towns. It is rural, often illiterate, and xenophobic. Above all, it fears change.

Among Mexico's political ironies is the fact that the party that opened Mexico's economy to the world — the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI — has unwittingly become shackled to the old Mexico. That is because it tried to carry out economic reforms while moving too slowly on political reform. The free market forces it unleashed had to look elsewhere for suitable political leadership.

Overwhelmingly, they have turned to the National Action Party (PAN), and its charismatic presidential standard-bearer, Vicente Fox. Over the past eleven years, the PAN has won control of the most important states in northern Mexico, including Baja California Norte, Nuevo Leon, Jalisco, Guanajuato and Queretaro.

Mexico's twenty most populous cities, including the capital, are run by opposition mayors. And opinion polls show Fox, who is governor of Guanajuato, leading PRI candidate Francisco Labastida by a wide margin in the major cities (including Mexico City), in northern Mexico, and among educated voters and the middle class.

Labastida, on the other hand, leads Fox by an equally impressive margin in the other Mexico—in densely populated southern Mexico, whose impoverished small town and rural populations have seen little of the economic development that has transformed the capital city and northern Mexico.

To make matters worse, the two Mexicos will have two different kinds of elections. Though the Federal Electoral Institute has done a valiant job, it cannot overcome the realities of political power in the old Mexico.

Though the voting in the carefully-scrutinized urban districts will be as squeaky-clean as in a Spanish election, there can be no such guarantees in much of rural Mexico. Local party bosses known as caciques have been cautioning recipients of government handouts that they will be cut off if they don't vote for the PRI. Local radio has tilted coverage heavily in favor of the PRI. And much of southern Mexico is heavily patrolled by the army, which has often equated support for the opposition with support for guerrillas. This part of Mexico might as well be Peru.

This means that if the election results are close, and the PRI wins by a couple of percentage points overall, modern Mexico will have a hard time accepting the result. It would be a bit like trying to get Spaniards to accept the results of a Peruvian election that would somehow govern the course of Spain.

Worse yet, Mexico has no runoffs. Even if Labastida wins by a margin large enough to dispel doubts about the rural election, he will still have much less than majority support. Another anti-PRI candidate, Cuauhtemoc Cardenas, will likely draw 10-20% of the vote.

That leaves three prospects for Mexico's elections.

One is the stable Spanish outcome. Vicente Fox wins against all odds, and is acclaimed as the democratic reformer who brought 71 years of one-party rule to an end.

Another is the unstable Peruvian outcome. Labastida wins narrowly, and becomes a Mexican Fujimori.

A third possibility is an unexpectedly strong showing by Labastida. In that case stability will depend on major concessions to modern Mexico — to the new majority that split its vote among opposition candidates.

Andrew Reding directs the Americas Project of the World Policy Institute.

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