Mexico City. --While the rest of the world was dumbfounded by the arrival of democracy in the Soviet Union, America's most populous neighbor was looking the other way.
On Aug. 18, Mexico went to the polls and to no great surprise, the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) won more than 60 percent of the vote.
Only one of the nine opposition parties got more than 10 percent of the vote -- and that was only 17.7 percent.
The PRI won all but 10 of the 300 directly elected seats in the lower house of Congress and all but one of the 32 seats up for election in the 64-member Senate. All six governorships were swept by the PRI.
This was not something new. Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa once described Mexico as "the perfect dictatorship," referring to the PRI's 62 years of continuous rule.
During that period, no opposition party gained a majority in Congress or captured the presidency. Only one opposition candidate ever became governor. (That was in 1989.)
The party's hold was so "perfect" that the Organization of American States has cited Mexico for rigging the political system in the PRI's favor in two state elections.
With the electoral and judicial system in its hands, with nearly every important government post occupied by its members, from the police to the president, the PRI has been able to control the Mexican political process.
And while the U.S. has predicated its foreign policy on democratic reforms in the Soviet Union and Cuba, none of those standards were applied to Mexico so long as it remained stable )) and non-Communist.
Now the U.S. and Canada are bargaining a free trade agreement with Mexico, primarily to offset emerging trade blocks in Europe and Asia.
The Bush administration hopes to present the agreement for ratification by Congress in March -- early enough to avoid having the pact becoming an issue in the presidential campaign, especially if the U.S. economy fails to rebound. But some in Congress are beginning to wonder whether the pact shouldn't be conditioned on democratic reforms and whether President Bush's unrestricted enthusiasm for closer Mexican trade ties is shortsighted.
"As we begin detailed trade negotiations with the Mexican government, I urge you to include democracy as a key precondition to any broad free-trade agreement," wrote Rep. John J. LaFalce, D.-N.Y., in an Aug. 5 letter to President Bush.
"We must apply to conditions in Mexico the same recognition of the link between authoritarianism and and denial of human rights which you have so often applied to Cuba," said Mr. LaFalce, chairman of the House Small Business Committee.
Aside from the risk of American job losses to Mexico, critics such as Mr. LaFalce wonder if the signing of a trade pact is truly representative of the Mexican people or is simply the desire of the of ruling party.
The PRI, they note, received 49 percent in a pre-election poll conducted by Este Pais magazine. Moreover, critics say that all-powerful Mexican presidents have been known to reverse the policies of their predecessors, as happened in 1982 with the nationalization of the banking system and in 1938 with the expropriation of foreign-owned oil companies.
"Without the check of a truly representative government, a free trade agreement is whatever a Mexican president says it is," says Andrew Reding, head of the World Policy Institute's Mexico Project.
On the eve of the Aug. 18 elections, Carlos Salinas de Gortari needed two things: To establish his legitimacy as president and to gain an overwhelming majority in the Mexican Congress that would enable him to enact laws favorable to foreign investors and the free trade agreement.
In 1988, Mr. Salinas was elected by the smallest majority of any PRI presidential candidate. Some say he lost to Cuauhtemoc Cardenas, a PRI defector seeking to bring more democracy to the party. The PRI also lost its two-thirds constitutional majority in the lower house of Congress, reflecting widespread voter discontent over economic stagnation and triple-digit inflation.
In the August election, Mr. Salinas succeeded in achieving his legitimacy and re-establishing PRI power in the Congress. But in doing so, he lost a major gain of the 1988 elections -- the perception that the PRI was willing to share power with the opposition and that after more than a half century of one-party rule, Mexico was becoming pluralistic.
Ironically, many election observers believe the PRI need not have resorted to questionable vote practices and would have won anyway, thanks to the popularity of the president and the opposition's chronic lack of organization.
Others say Mr. Salinas needed to roll up sufficient votes to win a Congress that would change Mexican protectionist laws, facilitating the free trade agreement and increased foreign investment.
"Salinas was damned if he did (allow a fairer vote) and damned if he didn't, said a Western diplomat.
Government spokesmen say the favorable election results stemmed from the president's widely praised economic reforms and his $2.5 billion self-help program to aid the poor.
In just three years, the 43-year-old, Harvard-educated president has cut the nation's $100 billion foreign debt, sold off scores of state companies, sliced the inflation rate below 20 percent and sought closer trade ties with the United States, Mexico's largest trading partner.
Mr. Salinas and the PRI-dominated Congress are now poised to liberalize Mexico's protectionist 1974 investment law, its utopian labor law and its form of land tenancy that has crippled the agriculture sector.
Yet the PRI's huge election landslide has had a price.
Its victories were so immense that the center-right National Action Party (PAN), the nation's second largest and best organized opposition party, threatened to withdraw from national politics, citing widespread fraud and vote-rigging.
The PAN had supported Mr. Salinas' election reforms, hoping that its support would yield gains at the ballot box.
But instead it lost badly, raising fears that its leadership would be dumped by party leaders who had opposed the electoral reform talks.
Attention quickly focused on the governor's race in Guanajuato, a rich agriculture and industrial state in central Mexico, where the PAN candidate threatened a civil disobedience campaign against the declared PRI winner, a former lackluster mayor of Mexico City.
After receiving post-election criticisms from abroad -- a New York Times editorial likened Mexico to Cuba -- Mr. Salinas and party leaders prompted the PRI governor-elect to fall on his sword by resigning.
An interim PAN governor was elected by the state legislature, clearing the way for a new governor's race next year and the likely election of Vicente Fox, the PAN gubernatorial candidate and an open admirer of Mr. Salinas .
Government spokesmen say that the Guanajuato reversal was a blow to the old guard of the PRI, whose campaigns are based on the power of local political bosses, state funds and other shenanigans.
But to others, Guanajuato was a cynical reminder that the president still controls Mexican political life through the PRI.
Modern Mexican society "does not believe that political reform should be postponed in favor of economic reform; it argues that the success of the latter is impossible without the former," wrote Enrique Krauze, in a recent commentary in the Wall Street Journal.
"At the end of the 20th century, when democracy has spread all over the world, Mexico cannot go on being governed by an antediluvian monster," said Mr. Krauze, co-editor of Vuelta, Mexico's most prestigious literary magazine.
John McClintock is The Sun's Mexico City correspondent.