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After Mexico’s Economic Miracle, Are Democratic Reforms to Follow?

June 24, 1993

MEXICO CITY (AP) _ Proponents of democratic reform laud a proposal by the administration of President Carlos Salinas de Gortari to grant Mexico City residents a limited role in choosing their mayor.

The plan, advanced by the 64-year ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, is being praised as a remarkable but tentative step by Salinas to fulfill pledges of democratic reforms to match his free-market agenda.

The president has long chosen the mayor of the capital, the country’s economic and political power base. Under the new proposal, to take effect in 1997, the president would have to select a mayor from the party in the city’s popularly elected Representative Assembly that garners the most votes in an election.

The 66-member Assembly traditionally has exercised little power, but stands to gain in stature under the plan advanced Wednesday by Mayor Manuel Camacho Solis. It would even be allowed to disqualify the president’s choice.

Because the proposed reforms in Mexico City would be constitutional changes, they must be approved by a majority of Mexico’s 31 state legislatures. Observers said they believed the ruling party’s dominance would assure passage.

″For the first time we will be able to choose and then validate our own mayor,″ said capital resident and novelist Homero Aridjis, a prominent activist.

He said it would be a break from a tradition dating to the 1530s when Spain, the colonizer, chose the viceroys for the territory.

The battle over Mexico City’s leadership is widely considered a litmus test of opposition clout and Salinas’ willingness to fulfill pledges to cede some political power in the name of multi-party politics.

″This is one of the first real political reforms we’ve seen yet and could be a watershed, since all political reforms are likely to radiate outward from the capital,″ Aridjis said in an interview.

But while many praised the plan, others said it didn’t go far enough.

″This was not a plan developed by consensus,″ said Hiram Escudero, a member of the opposition National Action Party, speaking with the newspaper La Jornada.

Opponents labeled the plan a mere half-step toward demands for outright statehood and direct elections, two proposals overwhelmingly backed by a hastily organized March plebiscite in which 330,000 residents turned out.

Salinas rapidly instituted bold free market reforms upon taking office in 1988. But critics have long said his pledges of democratic reform lag far behind - with most of the 31 Mexican states still under the ruling party’s grip.

The capital has remained a Federal District under ruling party control even though its 9 million inhabitants and 8 million more in the adjoining metropolitan sprawl are nearly a quarter of Mexico’s 81 million population.

The reform plan comes as the U.S. Congress is closely watching Mexico ahead of a potentially divisive debate on whether to ratify the North American Free Trade Agreement and implement it as scheduled Jan. 1.

The Canadian Senate approved legislation Wednesday to ratify NAFTA, but the treaty’s fate depends largely on political developments in Washington, where heavy American job losses to cheaper Mexican labor are much feared.

″Salinas is doing everything possible to keep the issue of democracy from causing problems while getting NAFTA passed by Congress,″ said Doug Payne, a Mexico expert with the New York human rights group Freedom House.

″On the question of the one-party state, all indications thus far have been that Mr. Salinas has not been willing to allow the transition to a fully pluralistic and democratic system,″ added Payne in a telephone interview.

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