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Mexico's Cultural Revolution: From Centrism to Competition

Analysts hail 1997 as the year of democratization and deregulation

Call 1997 the year of a mini-Mexican Revolution.

That may be overstating the case, but it should be a year of important changes in Mexico that will alter both the way the country operates and the traditionally dependent relationship between Mexicans and their government.

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Drawing the most attention are the midterm national legislative elections set for July 6. The vote could result in the first-ever opposition-led Congress, breaking the 70-year lock on power of the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI).

On the same day, Mexico City will for the first time elect its mayor - a position currently appointed by the president - who also is likely to hail from the opposition for the first time.

Beyond the elections, Mexicans will experience a major change as the formerly state-owned and monopolistic Telefonos de Mexico (Telmex) is exposed to competition from new long-distance service providers. A third influential element in a year of change will come in July, when a new system of privately managed and competitive pension funds is introduced.

What these changes mean, some analysts say, is that 1997 will be a year when many Mexicans, accustomed to having much decided for them by a paternalistic government, confront the ramifications of a culture of choice and alternatives.

"This is a crucial year in Mexico's transition to a culture of competition," says Victor Durand Ponte, a sociologist at Mexico's National Autonomous University here.

Mexico has been emerging from its one-party political system and statist economy for nearly a decade, but what makes this year significant, according to analysts, are the number and variety of choices coming up.

"There's a lot of emphasis on the congressional elections right now, but one of the most important and interesting 'elections' this year will be the selection process for long-distance carriers and the important change that represents for Mexicans given the [monopolistic] history of Telmex," says Daniel Lund, director of Market Opinion Research International's Mexico City office.

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"What makes this year significant is the number of new choices Mexicans will have," he says.

Others emphasize that 1997, while important, is part of a "process of change" Mexico is going through rather than a watershed. "We're adding more elements to the broad cultural change we've been experiencing over the past several years," says Jos Antonio Crespo, a Mexico City political analyst. "Breaking the Telmex monopoly follows in the footsteps of the earlier introduction of competition in television" with the end of Televisa's monopoly on programming in 1993.

Test of democracy

The midterm legislative elections are particularly important because they stand as a national litmus test of Mexico's democratic transition.

A heated discussion is pitting those pundits who say the opposition must win the elections to prove Mexico's successful democratization, against those who say a PRI loss is not the necessary condition. One group of prominent Mexicans has formed the Alliance for the Republic to rally the country to a PRI defeat through the creation of an electoral coalition of the principal opposition parties.

Such a coalition is looking unlikely, however, given the ideological differences and political ambitions of the two principal opposition parties.

But some analysts insist a PRI loss is not the crucial test anyway. "The important condition is not that the PRI lose, but that the elections be unquestionably fair and just," says Mr. Durand. Crespo agrees that a PRI loss shouldn't be the required test, but he says Mexico's problem is that, for a large number of Mexicans, that is the condition for a successful democratic transition. "So we will have a perception problem if [this large number of Mexican voters] don't have this tangible result that tells them we have reached democracy."

If the July elections are not fair and clean, Durand says, Mexico is likely to enter the next century in turmoil stemming from this perception of a failed transition. But he adds that 1997 presents a larger challenge: extending an emerging "culture of competition" to more of the Mexican population.

"A large part of Mexico remains outside this new society," he says. "Either the country succeeds ... in bringing a broader base of society into the globalization process and culture of competition, or we are going to face growing social instability."

Leaving have-nots out

While affluent Mexicans are growing to expect the kinds of choices that are coming with telecommunications competition and pension diversification, he says, others remain shut out. "You can't be in an AFORES [acronym for the new private pension program] if you don't have a job," says Durand, "and you have no reason to make a decision about a long-distance carrier if you don't have a telephone."

One important difference between 1997 and earlier midterm elections, Crespo says, is that President Ernesto Zedillo Ponce de Len is entering the year in a weaker position than past presidents. A determining factor in how the PRI does, analysts agree, will be to what extent Mexicans are feeling the country's economic recovery from its December 1994 economic crisis.

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