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From the September 2000 issue of World Press Review (VOL. 47, No. 9)

Letter from the Editor

Trading Appliances for Pluralism

Alice Chasan , World Press Review editor

While most of us in the United States enjoyed the rare indolence of a four-day Independence Day weekend, Mexico, our neighbor to the south, held a quiet revolution via the ballot box.

Breaking a seven-decade habit, Mexicans opted for autonomy in the voting booth on July 2, electing the man pictured on our cover this month, Vicente Fox of the National Action Party (PAN), as their president. In our cover story, commentators and analysts examine the forces that coalesced to end the 71-year hegemony of the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, known as the PRI, and ponder the direction Fox’s presidency will take.

Fox swept into office on a wave of voter sentiment demanding “El Cambio” (the Change), as Mexicans called the push for a pluralistic, democratic politics. But what he stands for and what policies he will effect remain murky at best.

Progressives worry about what Mexican writer Carlos Fuentes characterizes as the “old clericalist, homophobic, moralist, and misogynist tendencies” of the PAN, and fear that Fox’s popularity may draw him to the demagogic, authoritarian style that has deep roots in Mexican political culture. Critics warn the poor and disenfranchised stand little more chance of having a voice in the Fox era than under generations of PRI leaders.

Conservatives, while uncertain about the shape of Fox’s presidency, see his victory as a revolt against the PRI’s antiquated economic policies and a rejection of the left’s agenda, embodied by Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas, leader and presidential candidate of the Party of the Democratic Revolution. Scouring Fox’s record for clues to his agenda on Mexico’s chronic problems with the environment, the economy, corruption, and the yawning gap between rich and poor, Cárdenas adviser Adolfo Gilly dismisses Fox’s “contradictory promises on jobs, wages, education, privatizations, lower taxes, Chiapas, and a 7-percent increase in the gross national product” as “pipedreams.”

For Fuentes and other analysts who concede that Fox may fall short of their own ideological predilections, however, this is nevertheless a pivotal moment in Mexican politics, one of hope and exhilaration. There has been a breakthrough of enormous proportions, in which the electorate has traded predictability for possibility. Now all eyes are on Fox to see what he makes of this opening—whether he and his government allow a lively, pluralistic politics to take root, or craft the PAN into another version of the PRI.

Through its hallmark amalgam of authoritarianism, corruption, control of the media, and paternalism, the PRI held a lock on power so effective that it long appeared immune to opposition from the left or the right. Not until this electoral round was there the institutional support—in the form of the Federal Electoral Institute—and the national leadership—in the person of President Ernesto Zedillo—necessary to ensure the integrity of the electoral process.

But old habits die hard. Right up to the end of the campaign, according to a postelection report filed in mid-July by New York Times correspondent Sam Dillon, the PRI tried to shape the public’s perceptions and voting behavior by stifling press coverage of opinion polls reflecting growing support for Fox—and distributing washing machines and other gadgets in exchange for election-day loyalty. This time, though, a majority chose pluralism over appliances.

Some analysts discount Zedillo’s role in the transformation, pointing to the PRI’s corrupt, coercive tactics and concluding that he had little choice but to validate the election results. I don’t buy it. it is that Zedillo served as midwife to his own party’s defeat, however, ask yourself Zedillo is no more a revolutionary than President-elect Fox, the former Coca-Cola executive. Abuses of power inherent in one-party rule marred his tenure in office. Lest we gloss over how extraordinary if, in the course of this presidential election year, our sitting president would exact change in the U.S. political system at the expense of his party’s hold on the White House. For his courage, says Fuentes, Zedillo will “go down in history as the president who confirmed the era of democracy in Mexico and consolidated the transition that made it possible.”

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