August 27, 1999


Mexico's Accidental President Fails The Test In Both Party and Nation

By Jesus Martinez

MEXICO CITY — President Ernesto Zedillo will be hard-pressed to claim any notable achievements when he delivers his fifth state of the nation address on September 1. Indeed, he will likely be remembered as one of the most inept presidents in the unbroken 70-year history of rule by his party, the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI).

Zedillo became president by accident in 1994 when then-president Carlos Salinas de Gortari selected him to replace the PRI's official candidate, who was assassinated.

In that election campaign he was presented as a man of the highest academic achievement, and promised that his election would bring "Well-being for your family."

But only a few days after he took office, Mexico suffered one of the sharpest currency devaluations in its history. In less than a month the peso had lost half its value.

This could be seen as part of the devastating economic crisis that began in 1982, but Zedillo also proved incapable of dealing with new political problems.

During the presidency of Ernesto Zedillo, Mexico has been a country in a state of turmoil.

No better example exists than the situation in Chiapas, where Zedillo ordered an offensive against the insurgent Zapatista Army of National Liberation in February 1995. Talks with the Zapatistas have been suspended ever since, and Chiapas remains in a state of war, as unarmed peasants are massacred by death squads armed or protected by government officials and regional landlords.

Non governmental organizations monitoring the state of affairs have reported that military operatives are generating greater repression and persecution of social leaders. Perhaps the most prominent is the campaign against Ofelia Medina, a popular actress who has become an activist on behalf of the indigenous peoples of Chiapas. Last week, the PRI-dominated city council of the capital city of San Cristobal de las Casas voted to expel her.

Although Zedillo boasts of Mexico as a full democracy, his government and party worked diligently to undermine urgently needed reforms, such as giving Mexicans residing abroad — an estimated 10.7 million people, nearly 15% of the national electorate — the right to vote.

Unfortunately for Zedillo, he has also become extremely unpopular with members of his own party. Breaking tradition, his predecessor Carlos Salinas has not agreed to go to the sidelines, a practice that has helped ensure stability over the years.

Salinas feels betrayed because Zedillo imprisoned his brother Raul Salinas, on charges of masterminding the assassination of Jose Francisco Ruiz Massieu, a high-ranking PRI official. Carlos Salinas may find an opportunity for revenge now that it is time for Zedillo to pick his successor, a power PRI presidents have always enjoyed.

Carlos has allied himself with anti-Zedillo forces within the PRI to back Roberto Madrazo, who has rapidly gained popularity and is now considered to be even with Francisco Labastida Ochoa, Zedillo's anointed successor.

This may very well lead to an unprecedented internal rupture within the PRI as Zedillo seems no more able to control the presidential succession process than the course of national politics. Thus, once his six-year term ends Zedillo may be best remembered for leaving both the nation and his party in shambles.

Martinez is an immigrant researcher and activist who was formerly a member of the Political Science Department at Santa Clara University.

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