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Mexico Changes Guard

AS Mexico inaugurates its new president, Ernesto Zedillo Ponce de Leon, it is heartening to see the strength of the Cabinet he has named to support him. The new government will certainly have a lot on its plate: economic reforms, political violence, the rebellion in the southern state of Chiapas, and factional tensions within the ruling PRI, the Institutional Revolutionary Party.

Mr. Zedillo's inclusion in his Cabinet of a number of veterans of the administration of his predecessor, Carlos Salinas de Gortari, is intended to signal continuity and reassure investors, especially from the United States. Two free-trade advocates who represented Mexico in the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) negotiations have been given top economic posts.

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The new Cabinet has the most women - three - ever appointed at the beginning of an administration. There is even, for the first time, an opposition-party member in the Cabinet: Attorney General Antonio Lozano of the conservative National Action Party. Zedillo has also reached out to the left this week, meeting with the Democratic Revolutionary Party - as his predecessor never did.

Zedillo will be the first Mexican president to govern completely under NAFTA. This will mean, of course, continually closer economic ties but also closer scrutiny from the north of its political process and its respect for human rights.

Mexico has long been regarded as a stable democracy, but as a democracy, it still has a rite of political maturity to undergo. The grace with which ruling parties and their opposition can change places is rightly viewed as a test of true democracy - term limits writ large, we might say. But the PRI has governed Mexico longer than the Communists ruled the Soviet Union.

This latest round of presidential elections was regarded as the fairest in Mexican history, but the PRI retains its prerogatives. For instance, as noted recently in the Monitor's Opinion pages, the PRI has a monopoly on the use of the colors of the Mexican flag; opposition parties must use other, presumably less patriotic-looking colors - no small matter in a largely illiterate society.

At some point it will no longer be enough simply for the progressive-minded technocrats of the PRI to take over from the ``dinosaurs'' of the old guard, or even for the Cabinet to include members of the opposition. At some point the PRI should expect to yield power to its political opponents.

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