Not long ago, the idea of Mexico's long-ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) using primary elections to nominate candidates would have been unthinkable. The party's old boys' network picked standard bearers, and always had.
But primaries are now the rage for the PRI. In some instances, notably last month's governor's election in Chihuahua State, they have paid off. The primary there appeared to energize PRI voters and lead to a victory, ousting the incumbent National Action Party (PAN).
The PAN made a comeback in the Aug. 2 governor's race in Aguascalientes, a small state north of Mexico City. But the PRI took two other races held the same day.
It's hard to view any return to power by the PRI (other than in a future, genuine multi-party system) as positive for Mexican democracy, given the party's 60-year stranglehold on the country's politics. But those politics have slowly changed over the past decade and a half, and the PRI is trying to change with them. Primaries, if they're honestly run, can dethrone the old back-room bosses.
The biggest boss in Mexico is the president, who traditionally wields nearly dictatorial powers. But the current president, Ernesto Zedillo, though a PRI-ista, has announced he'll forgo the privilege of choosing the party's next presidential candidate. In the past, that privilege amounted to picking a successor. But the 2000 election is considered the best opportunity yet for the PAN, on the right, or the leftist Party of the Democratic Revolution to compete for the top job.
Will the PRI extend its experiment with primaries to the national race? With another 10 gubernatorial contests between now and early November, primaries may become an unbreakable pattern.
More vigorous parties are one factor altering Mexico's political landscape. Another factor should be strengthened democratic institutions. The National Congress, for instance, has played weak second fiddle to a powerful executive. Mexicans themselves realize the need to upgrade it. To this end, a program organized through USAID, Washington's foreign aid arm, will team US scholars with Mexican legislative staff to boost the latter's skill at researching and writing legislation and shaping budgets. Such teamwork, in itself, says something about new attitudes, given historic suspicions of the US.
But no Mexican institution needs strengthening more than the justice system. Crime and police corruption are rampant. The rise of drug cartels is one cause. Some people feel the breakdown of the old single-party, strong-arm political structure is another. Clearly, in Mexico as in other democratizing parts of the world, controlling crime will be a major test for the new political openness.