The Magazine

As the World Votes

The era of big government does seem to be over.

Jul 23, 2001, Vol. 6, No. 42 • By MICHAEL BARONE
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But there were some good things about Putin’s victory. He beat the Communists. They are a ragtag bunch, but it has never been certain that Russians would not vote them back in. In much of the runup to the 1996 election, Zyuganov had led Yeltsin, though he lost the election, and in 2000 he lost more ground. Putin promised to promote the rule of law and hired free marketeer German Gref as his economic adviser. In office, he has moved successfully to allow the sale of land and to impose some certainty on legal rules. If he has persecuted NTV owner Victor Gusinsky, he has also driven out another oligarch, Boris Berezovsky. His victory represented a move toward free markets.

*MEXICO, JULY 2000. "¡Hoy! ¡Hoy! ¡Hoy!" shouted the crowd awaiting Vicente Fox at the Angel of Independence statue on Mexico City’s Paseo de la Reforma on Election Night 2000. It was a reference to a mistake Fox had made during the campaign, but also a declaration that "Today! Today! Today!" the ruling PRI party had been defeated for the first time in 71 years. As the crowd jumped up and down in unison, I could feel the ground shake—a reminder that Mexico City is built on an earthquake-prone swamp and that its political firmament was changing beyond recognition.

Fox’s victory was anything but assured. He had trailed or at best run even in public polls; it turned out that pro-PRI news media had been suppressing pro-Fox numbers. The PRI had run a candidate, Francisco Labadista, who could plausibly claim to be a reformer himself, and the incumbent president, Ernesto Zedillo, had led an administration that had helped produce economic recovery and in important ways had reformed law enforcement and freed up the political system. Fox’s PAN party had long been associated with the Catholic Church and with pro-U.S. feeling, while PRI with its anticlerical and anti-yanqui traditions claimed to embody Mexican nationalism. (The PRI’s trademark colors were always those of the Mexican flag; ordered to change them, the party traded the white for a very light gray.)

Fox’s victory should not be portrayed as an undiluted victory for free market capitalism. He declined to oppose the constitution’s requirement that oil production and marketing be monopolized by the state-owned company Pemex. He brought into his campaign and later into his government social democrats like Jorge Castaneda, now foreign minister. He called for cleaning up law enforcement and selling off other state companies. And only one candidate, the leftist PRD’s Cuauhtemoc Cardenas, repudiated the North American Free Trade Agreement; he finished third.

Fox’s victory was contingent on many factors: his personal stature, allowing him to rise above the baggage of his party; an electoral system that is now more transparent and honest than that of, say, St. Louis; Cardenas’s weak performance as mayor of Mexico City, which pushed him down from first to third in polls. But it is also evidence of a basic change in the thinking of the Mexican people, and in particular of the younger generation. Up through 1982, at least 66 percent of Mexicans voted PRI for president. But in 2000, of the 60 percent of Mexicans who were under 40, only 31 percent gave their votes to PRI. The ruling party no longer embodied the nation.

*THE UNITED STATES, NOVEMBER-DECEMBER 2000. George W. Bush won despite running against the incumbent vice president in a time of peace and prosperity. He won despite proposing individual investment accounts in Social Security. He won despite taking stands on abortion and gun control that the mainstream media proclaimed vote-losers. He won despite the bad luck of losing by a few thousand votes Iowa, Wisconsin, and Oregon, which have 25 electoral votes between them—enough to make the Florida controversy moot, had those few thousand votes gone the other way. And, it should be added, Republicans held the House of Representatives, winning more votes for the House than the Democrats for the fourth election in a row.