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Mexicans Say Si to Real Democracy

Sunday's vote ends seven decades of domination by a single party, the PRI

Mexicans turned the page on a 68-year chapter of their country's history Sunday by voting an end to a political system that since 1929 had given almost unchallenged power to one party, the Revolutionary Institutional Party (PRI).

In a nationally televised address Sunday night, President Ernesto Zedillo called the election "a grand democratic fiesta" that had "institutionalized democracy in our country." Even some of the Mexican political system's harshest critics agreed that Mexico had finally turned down the road of no return toward democracy.

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Mexicans voting in state and national congressional elections gave the nod to a multiparty system. The autocratic rule of the PRI, including an imperial presidency, will be replaced by power-sharing, dialogue, and negotiations among government branches, something completely new to Mexico. The changes in the political culture will affect not just Mexico at all levels of society, but the US as well.

"There's an old saying in Mexico that the power is neither ceded nor shared. But that's over," said Amalia Garcia, a leader in the center-left Revolutionary Democratic Party (PRD), a few hours after polls closed. After this election, she adds, "power is going to have to be ceded, and it will have to be shared."

The election appears to have transpired without the dubious actions and fraudulent events of past votes. The most significant outcome is the PRI's apparent loss - for the first time in seven decades - of an absolute majority in the lower house of Congress. The PRI, which is President Zedillo's party, will no longer be able to act with complete disregard for the other parties in Congress, and Mr. Zedillo will have to look outside the PRI to get his legislative program passed.

Although election returns were not complete by the time the Monitor went to press yesterday, partial returns showed the PRI coming in first place nationwide in elections for the lower house of Congress with 38 percent, followed by the center-right National Action Party (PAN) with 27 percent, and the PRD with 26 percent. No party seemed set to achieve the 42.5 percent needed under Mexico's complex electoral system to win an absolute majority of seats.

Mexico City elects a PRI opponent

But undoubtedly the most emblematic event in Sunday's midterm elections was the triumph of PRD candidate Cuauhtemoc Cardenas in the first election for mayor of Mexico City in 69 years. Mr. Cardenas was taking 48 percent of the vote, more than his two closest challengers combined.

The victory of Cardenas symbolized Mexico's advancing democracy not only because he was elected to a post that for the past seven decades was appointed by the president. His election also garnered significance because most Mexicans are convinced that Crdenas had all but won the 1988 presidential elections until a massive crash of the then-PRI-controlled federal electoral administration's computers shifted the vote in favor of Carlos Salinas de Gortari.

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In a highly unusual gesture in Mexican politics that symbolized Mexico's strengthening plurality, Zedillo in his address singled out Crdenas - one of his sharpest political critics - for congratulations. Zedillo also pledged the federal government's cooperation and resources to help Mexico City's new mayor address the problems of the giant metropolis.

In a quick response from his party's press center, Crdenas - who lost a bid for the Mexican presidency to Zedillo in 1994 - acknowledged Zedillo's gesture as a sign of Mexico's "democratic advancement." He also praised Zedillo for initiating the electoral reforms that culminated in what analysts were calling the fairest and most transparent elections in Mexico's history.

Election reveals three different Mexicos

Mexico City political analyst Lorenzo Meyer says it was "notable" that a president who "a few weeks ago was wearing the shirt of the chief of his party is now speaking the language of a statesman."

Mr. Meyer says that Sunday's elections marked a new "democratic normalcy for Mexico."

They also revealed three different Mexicos, he says:

* One in the industrialized, "globalized," NAFTA-oriented north, where the left-leaning PRD has little force.

* One symbolized by Mexico City, where a mature, multiparty democracy includes a strong opposition to Mexico's market-oriented economic program.

* One in "forgotten" Mexico, represented by the poor and heavily indigenous southern state of Chiapas, where most of the election's black marks were concentrated.

While the voting process across much of the country was uneventful, election observers reported that materials at several Chiapas polling sites were burned, and poll workers at one site were sequestered by locals opposed to the election process.

What the election did not confirm was the death of the long-ruling PRI, as some observers had anticipated. The PRI remains Mexico's first political organization, ahead of the PAN and PRD, which still cannot be considered national political forces. If the country's emergence from its worst economic recession in 60 years continues, 1997 could actually turn out to be a low point from which the PRI rebounds.

In addition to losing its absolute majority in Congress and the Mexico City mayor's race, the PRI was also losing the governorships in the economic powerhouse of Nuevo Leon and in Queretero.

Instead of being the power, the PRI now is something more like first among equals. Crdenas - already looking like a likely presidential candidate in 2000 - will be a forceful and high-profile voice opposing the PRI's economic and political programs.

And other parties that only got bloodied by butting up against the PRI's autocratic rule in the past will take advantage of a more pluralistic democracy to demand better treatment.

PAN leader Ricardo Garca Cervantes notes that when in recent years his party repeatedly proposed legislation to allow citizen referendums, the PRI ignored the proposal, and it went nowhere.

After Sunday, he says, the PRI won't find such arrogance so easy.

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