Column: At last, a vote that signals real political revolution in Mexico

After suffering more than 70 years of one-party "democracy," a real revolution finally began in Mexico last Sunday when opposition leader Vicente Fox soundly defeated the candidate of the corrupt ruling party in that country's first honest presidential election. The surprising result is good news for both Mexico and the United States.

Fox, of the center-right National Action Party (PAN), a wealthy businessman/rancher who became governor of historic Guanajuato state, trounced Francisco Labastida of the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) by nearly ten percentage points. In the past, the PRI always counted the votes but this year that delicate task was handled by a new, independent National Elections Commission. Much of the credit for an honest election goes to outgoing PRI President Ernesto Zedillo, who leaves office on Dec. 1.

"Today Mexico is already different," a jubilant Fox told supporters after his victory was announced. "Today Mexico enters the 21st century with its right foot forward." On Wednesday, Fox laid out detailed plans to combat crime, corruption and the drug trade, promising to reduce official corruption to "normal levels" during his six-year term in office. He acknowledged that no single country can defeat the Mexican narcotics cartels and called for a "coordinated international effort" to stop the flow of illegal drugs from Mexico to the U.S. and other developed nations. That's a promising start.

For his part President Zedillo, widely criticized by his own party for reforming Mexico's tainted electoral process, said Mexico has proved that it is now "a mature democracy with solid and trustworthy institutions and especially with a conscientious and civic-minded citizenry." As the Associated Press noted, "It was a sight that no Mexican had every seen - their president conceding his party's defeat to the opposition. It was a sight many thought they'd never see." Some observers even compared Zedillo to Mikhail Gorbachev, who presided over the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

I know that I never thought I'd live to see Mexico's weak opposition defeat the all-powerful PRI in an honest election, and transfer power peacefully to the winner. When I worked at the American Embassy in Mexico City in the early 1970s, the inside joke was that the PRI subsidized the PAN so as to create the illusion of democracy. In retrospect, maybe it wasn't a joke after all.

For many years Mexico was ruled by an elite group of PRI power brokers headed by the sitting president, who simply designated his successor. In previous years, all Mexicans could look forward to was - as one author put it - "the good fortune of a turnover in dictators every six years." This year, however, the governing party's candidate, longtime PRI bureaucrat Labastida, was chosen in a first-ever primary election.

And what are the implications of Fox's victory for the United States? In a congratulatory phone call, President Clinton told Fox that the U.S. stands ready to enhance the close cooperation that already exists between our two countries. "Mexico is our neighbor and our friend," Clinton said in a statement. "Mexico's national elections, the freest and fairest in the nation's history, stand as vivid testimony to the depth of the democratic commitment of the Mexican people." Clinton also praised President Zedillo's "extraordinary contributions" to democracy and Mexico - U. S. relations, which have improved markedly during Zedillo's presidency.

"With the exception of Cuba, it was hard to imagine a country in the Western He3misphere more unfriendly to the United States than Mexico not long ago," wrote the AP's George Gedda, who has covered Latin America for more than 30 years. "During the 1980s, Mexico was supporting the leftist adversaries of the United States in Central America. . . .(But) those days are long gone."

Prior to last Sunday's election, American officials worried that a narrow PRI victory could trigger fraud charges and a full-blown political crisis, resulting in an increased flow of illegal immigrants across the lengthy Mexico - U.S. border. "But just as the U.S. has a stake in a prosperous, stable Mexico, Mexico has a strong interest in an economically vibrant northern neighbor," wrote Gedda. "This explains why Mexico has pushed the OPEC oil cartel to increase production." He noted that Mexico's decision to join the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) has boosted two-way trade from $80 billion to $200 billion in just six years.

Paul Krugman of the New York Times called the Mexican election a victory for globalization, which is opposed by many Mexicans and a coalition of leftist Americans who demonstrated against international economic and trade organizations in Seattle and Washington, D.C. in recent months. "Mexico's triumphantly free election on Sunday was cause for rejoicing, not just for Mexico, but for everyone who hopes that this time around we may be getting globalization right," wrote Krugman. He added that Mexico can now be added to a growing list of globalization success stories that already includes Argentina, Chile, Korea and Taiwan, among others.

But the good news isn't just economic. As George Gedda wrote last week, "Mexico has always been a neighbor but not necessarily a friend. It is now both. . ." That's the best news we've had for a long time from south of the border.

(Guy W. Farmer, a semi-retired journalist and former U.S. diplomat, resides in Carson City.)


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