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Inside, outside: The costs of negotiation in Mexico, and the costs of avoiding it

Joel Estudillo Rendon

In late 1998, the Mexican political system showed definite signs of democratic progress. For the second time, the executive power was forced to negotiate with the legislative power on its 1999 plan for income and expenditures. This is a clear indicator that the nation's political system is moving toward an outright separation of powers.

While the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) has ceased to be the omnipotent party in Congress, the PRI-led administration managed to push through the fundamental part of its economic plan, designed to prevent the financial crisis that historically accompanies the end of the presidential term. In exchange for the approval of a 1.2 percent of GDP limit on the public deficit and inflation control measures, the government accepted important modifications in its plan.

The austerity of the budget--social spending, particularly on health and education, was most affected--holds profound importance for the country's future. Since most Mexicans have no access to private educational or health services, it could give rise to more extreme social polarization. The risk for the PRI is that the social unrest prompted by these measures translates into votes for the opposition, not only in state elections being held this year, but in the upcoming presidential election.

While President Ernesto Zedillo has reiterated that he will unalterably stick to his current economic plan, regardless of the political costs, sectors within his own PRI do not share the president's approach since it jeopardizes the permanence of the party in power. From this perspective, the positions assumed by the two main opposition parties in Congress are entirely understandable.

The National Action Party (PAN), determined to reinforce its image as the responsible party, has followed a conciliatory strategy, which allows it to take part in the design and approval of government policies. This tack not only strengthens the PAN as a participant, but benefits the party's own state and municipal governments. A 5.6-billion peso boost in funding for municipalities was approved, bringing the total to 13.1 billion pesos, and city halls received 158.4 pesos per inhabitant, instead of the 92.7 originally budgeted. These measures benefit the states and municipalities with the greatest populations, where the PAN has wrested its major electoral triumphs. The party has remained consistent in its proposed trajectory from the periphery-the municipalities and states--toward the center--the presidency of the Republic.

Steadfast on its gradualist path to the presidency, the PAN is devoted to preventing governmental instability, even if it means backing the administration on some initiatives. Convinced that the orthodox application of the free-market economic policy, as practiced by the PRI'S technocrats, will spell the demise of the dominant party, the PAN is willing to play along until that happens.

Nevertheless, this strategy has taken its toll on the PAN's present leadership, headed by Felipe Calderón. Certain members of the PAN feared the party was compromising its ideological principles by establishing legislative accords with the Zedillo government. That would explain why, once the negotiations over the criteria for the 1999 economic policy were finalized, Calderón hastened to announce he would not pursue reelection to the party's top post. It will thus be easier for the new PAN president to distance himself from the accords and assume an anti-governmental stance as the presidential elections approach.

Unlike the PAN, the left-of-center Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) has continually rejected the government's proposals and placed obstacles in the way of agreements between the government and the PAN, apparently aiming to radicalize its opposition counterpart. It's still too early to know if this will benefit the PRD at the polls. The PRD's performance in Congress during the congressional session that ended last December reinforced the impression that it is incapable of reaching agreements with its adversaries. This has kept it on the outskirts of negotiations and limited its opportunities to influence pending reforms during Mexico's period of political transition.

Despite being one of the largest legislative contingents, the PRD has not achieved important modifications in the government's agenda, particularly in the economic sphere. Clearly considering this a negative development, Chamber of Deputies PRD Coordinator Porfirio Muñoz Ledo has formed an upstart faction within the party called "Opción Nueva República" (New Republic Option), whose goal is to influence the change in the party's leadership, scheduled for next March, and ultimately to gather the necessary consensus to push forward Muñoz Ledo's bid for the presidency.

Published or Updated on: February 1, 1999 by Joel Estudillo Rendon © 1999
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