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  • Latin America's Critical ElectionsFive Scenarios for Mexico
  • Denise Dresser (bio)

In 1990, the Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa christened Mexico "the perfect dictatorship": neither the former Soviet Union nor Cuba had instituted an authoritarian model of governance as legitimate, stable, or resilient. Vargas Llosa's acerbic judgment seemed to reflect a universal consensus. The world was accustomed to dealing with a politically and economically predictable country, where the myth of revolutionary legitimacy was strong, and pressures for political opening were weak. Enjoying steady economic progress and governance by the cohesive and durable Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), with its remarkable capacity for coopting dissidents and managing domestic conflicts, Mexico was generally perceived as one of the few bastions of stability in Latin America.

In 1994, however, the period of Mexican predictability came to an abrupt end. Bursts of guerrilla activity in the southern state of Chiapas and the subsequent assassination of the ruling party's presidential candidate have propelled Mexico into an era of uncertainty. The ruling party is unstable, the economic dislocations are immense, and the government's credibility is diminished.

The presidential election scheduled to take place in August could inaugurate an era of competitive democracy. The Mexican political system has undergone significant changes during the past decade: the number of parties has increased, the ranks of the opposition have swelled, and elections have become less blatantly fraudulent. Antigovernment sentiment fueled by the Chiapas revolt could serve as [End Page 57] a catalyst for change. Democracy in Mexico is by no means assured, however. The PRI could still manipulate the electoral outcome, and impose limits and restrictions on the opposition. Previous elections in Mexico have been marked by irregularities and controversy; the 1994 race, in all likelihood, will be no exception.

Nonetheless, it is clear that the political contention, social instability, and increased international scrutiny that Mexico is now experiencing augur the advent of greater electoral challenges for the PRI. The internationalization of the Mexican economy, the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), and membership in the OECD are forcing the Mexican government to adopt new standards of political behavior. The country's continued economic progress, which is dependent on domestic and international investment, requires social stability and political peace. A fraudulent and turbulent election would seriously jeopardize Mexico's hard-won economic gains.

An unsatisfactory election would pose equally grave risks in the political realm. The aftermath of the Chiapas uprising indicates that further social conflict could render political parties useless as instruments for political change. Both the PRI and the opposition are aware that unless political participation takes appropriate forms, violence and conflict could substitute for formal rules and established institutions. The presidential election will constitute a true test of civility for the country's institutions, parties, and voters. Unless its main political actors are able to reach an accord regarding the rules of the electoral game, and agree to respect the outcome, Mexico could be headed toward postelection turmoil.

Salinas's Strategy

Until January 1994, the government of President Carlos Salinas de Gortari lived up to Vargas Llosa's epithet. Under Salinas, Mexico witnessed the rejuvenation of presidentialism, and gave clear signs of moving back toward more centralized and discretionary control. Salinas distanced himself from the political reform process that he had promised to institute when he took office; instead of democracy he offered NAFTA, lower inflation, and increased social spending. Although they occasionally demonstrated their opposition, popular-class groups remained divided and disorganized. The PRI was revived, and the government's poverty-alleviation program, Solidarity, reinjected the political system with elements of its old dynamics, including personalism and clientelism.1

Building on the policies of his predecessor, Miguel de la Madrid, Salinas proceeded to institute an ambitious structural adjustment program designed to bring Mexico out of its debt crisis and "update" the country to reflect changing international circumstances. Mexico moved from [End Page 58] import-substituting industrialization to export-led growth; from protectionism to competitiveness; from state protection to state promotion. The government deregulated the economy and the market, invited foreign investment, gave center-stage to the private sector, and went beyond the country's borders in search of new markets, partners, and...


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