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How Fares Zedillo?

Mexican leader gets public praise, congressional brickbats

Foes in the Mexican Congress are seeking to embarrass President Ernesto Zedillo even after a trip last week to Washington, where he boasted ever-higher approval ratings.

Revelations of venality in predecessor Carlos Salinas's administration, coupled with the 1994-96 peso crisis-cum-deep recession, made the bookish Zedillo, a Yale-trained economist, the favorite whipping-boy of local politicians and pundits during the first two years of his regime.

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A joke at the time commended Zedillo as the only winner of three Nobel prizes: in physics, because he made the peso float; in chemistry, because he transmuted the country into dung; and in literature, because he created Les Misrables in 19 days, a feat that took Victor Hugo 19 years.

But, gradually, the belly laughs gave way to grudging, tentative respect. Three factors explain the chief executive's rebound in public-opinion polls.

First, he stayed the course of liberalizing his nation's once rigidly statist, inefficient economy, while deftly wielding fiscal and monetary weapons to cut spending and attack a soaring inflation rate. Although still beset by bottlenecks and vulnerable to global shockwaves, the economy will grow almost 6.5 percent this year amid falling prices, rising consumption, and slowly expanding job creation.

Second, to the dismay of hard-line "dinosaurs" within Zedillo's own Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), the technocratic, no-nonsense president has honored the letter and spirit of the sweeping electoral law reforms that he championed. Consequently, the PRI - struggling from its identification with the now-shunned Salinas, the mid-1990s economic debacle, and ubiquitous corruption - has suffered a series of stunning setbacks at the polls.

On July 6, for example, the center-right National Action Party (PAN) increased from four to six the number of governorships it holds, while adding even more city halls to its column. The leftist-nationalist Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD) captured the Mexico City mayorship. And the PAN and PRD joined with two minor parties to take control of the 500-seat Chamber of Deputies for the first time since the PRI's founding in 1929.

Third, after Hurricane Pauline lashed the Acapulco area early last month, killing several hundred people, scores of sticky-fingered state and municipal officials seized upon disaster-relief supplies to fatten their bank accounts and reward political cronies. Upon learning of this, Zedillo immediately flew home from a meeting in Germany, placed the Army in charge of emergency operations, and personally supervised the recovery program.

The president also made sure prevention plans were in place when the milder tropical depression Rick struck the region. This time, better-prepared residents endured property losses but no deaths.

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Understandably, Porfirio Munoz Ledo (PRD) and Carlos Medina Plascencia (PAN) - honchos of the four-party "Opposition Bloc" in Congress - regard a revitalized presidency as the political equivalent of imbibing bad tequila.

After all, a strong chief executive might impede their chances of running for president in 2000 when Zedillo leaves office. Also, a dynamic executive branch would continue to overshadow Congress, which is trying hard to shed its traditional, accurate image as a farrago of levatadedos (yes men), and mandaderos de presidentes (presidential messenger boys).

The Munoz Ledo and Medina-led Opposition Bloc has harassed Zedillo by:

* Exposing the presence of discretionary presidential accounts, even though they found no wrongdoing by the incumbent.

* Temporarily, at least, denying him the the authority of the Constitution to make scheduled trips to Nicaragua and Canada.

* Threatening to recast his prudent budget - designed to impel the current economic upswing - by slashing the hated but necessary value-added tax from 15 to 12 percent, spurring social spending via a 2 to 3 percent budget deficit, and boosting allocations to states, where many governors enrich themselves on federal boodle.

While ready to entertain reasonable budget compromises, especially in fighting poverty, the president enjoys more credibility in fiscal matters than do lawmakers. Thus, demagogic moves to thwart his proven recovery strategy could boomerang. The result might be to sully Munoz Ledo's and Medina's images. It could, possibly, rupture the anti-PRI pact as some responsible, politically astute PAN representatives opt for Zedillo's approach rather than risk an economic slowdown accompanied by higher inflation.

* George W. Grayson, who teaches government at the College of William & Mary, is author of "Mexico: From Corporatism to Pluralism?" (Harcourt Brace).

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