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Mexico's Breakthrough

Mexico's voters have answered the question whether their country can turn decisively toward democratic reform. The July 6 election proves that competitive politics has arrived. The once sacrosanct Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) is left reeling.

But still standing. The left-center Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD) took the first contest for mayor of Mexico City in 68 years. Its winning candidate, PRD founder Cuauhtmoc Crdenas, is sure to be a strong presidential contender in 2000. The conservative National Action Party (PAN) increased its governorships to seven. Together, the two opposition parties deprived the PRI of a majority in the Chamber of Deputies, Mexico's lower house of Congress. The PRI, however, will hold the powerful presidency for at least another three years, and it remains the only party with truly national reach.

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Little will be the same for "PRI-istas." Most important, Congress will become an actual partner in government rather than the president's rubber stamp. The arts of dealmaking and compromise will have to be honed. Some opposition politicians are vowing to launch fresh probes of PRI-inspired corruption.

The PRI's own leader, President Ernesto Zedillo, can take much of the credit for the changes. Faced with the reality of growing opposition power, he pushed through political reforms that made fair elections possible. Can he now bring the tottering old PRI itself into the new era? Many of the party's elders yearn for a return to the authoritarian past.

Their yearnings aren't likely to be satisfied. Mexico's new direction is in line with its economic restructuring, its new relationships in the hemisphere (notably the closer ties with the United States), and, most important, with the interests of its people.

The problems facing the country remain, well, volcanic. Drug traffickers still pay off policemen and generals; the economy, though it has bright spots, still leaves millions of average Mexicans in deepening poverty; the peasant rebellions in the south still simmer.

But Mexico has turned a corner.

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