Leading Article: A vote to build on Mexico's progress

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MEXICO matters. It is, after Brazil, the second most populous country in Latin America. Setting an example to all comparable economies, its outgoing president, Carlos Salinas de Gortari, has succeeded in raising the country from financial near-ruin in his six-year term.

His reforms culminated in the North American Free Trade Agreement (Nafta) with the US and Canada, which officially buried the old Mexican custom of blaming the US for the country's woes. Moreover, Mexico shares a long border with the US, across which economic migrants pour the faster when times are hard in Mexico.

International interest in last weekend's presidential and legislative elections was intensified by the turbulence that marked the past eight months. This started with the uprising on 1 January of Zapatista rebels in the poor southern province of Chiapas. It gained a further dimension with the unexplained assassination in March of Luis Donaldo Colosio, the presidential candidate of the party in power since 1911, the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). In the past the PRI's victories have been assured or assisted by extensive electoral fraud. This time, malpractice does not seem to have been extensive enough to affect the result. With 44 per cent of ballot papers counted and on a high turnout, the PRI and its candidate Ernesto Zedillo have secured 48 per cent, a convincing majority even if the party's lowest percentage yet. Despite continuing rumblings of discontent from the south, Mexicans have thus indicated support for the changes initiated by President Salinas, including Nafta.

Protest votes appear to have gone more to the centre-right National Action Party than to the leftist Democratic Revolutionary Party led by Cuauhtemoc Cardenas, the chief victim of fraud six years ago.

When Mr Zedillo takes over, he will be under pressure from the US, as well as internally, to match the country's economic liberalisation with political reforms. Among his promises have been to decentralise government, to separate the PRI from the executive, to create an independent judicial system, and to improve the infrastructure in the poor south.

Like Italy, Mexico is in many ways two countries: investment is concentrated north of Mexico City, where the economy looks to the US. The south, relatively deprived, is oriented towards Central America.

The message from the Zapatista rebels and their charismatic leader, self-styled Subcomandante Marcos, was that the nation's poor, and especially its ethnic Indians, have been neglected too long. Nafta may well widen the gap. If the president elect fails to take corrective action, further political turbulence could undo much that has been achieved over the past six years.