The concord surrounding this week's summit between President Bush and Mexican President Carlos Salinas is unprecedented in 65 years of post-revolutionary Mexican history. The crown jewel of the summit is the promotion of a U.S.-Mexico free-trade agreement (FTA).

A U.S.-Mexico FTA would be the logical culmination of Mexico's economic strategy based on private investment and trade liberalization. For Mexico, an FTA will guarantee market access and attract investors. For the United States, an FTA will open up Mexico's market of 80 million people and enhance the competitiveness of our products vis-a`-vis Japan and the European Community.

There is but one shadow cast over what would otherwise be a flawless summit. Politics are the Achilles heel of bilateral amity. President Salinas presides over a political system in which a single party has dominated the electoral scene for 65 years. Salinas has made guaranteeing the irreversibility of economic reform a precondition to democracy. He is mindful of the lessons of Eastern Europe, where wholesale dismantling of political institutions has complicated economic reform. He is also aware of the experience of Chile and South Korea, where economic reforms implemented under strict political control have survived transitions to democracy.

Salinas is neither a brutal autocrat nor revolutionary democrat. Rather, he is a gradualist in democratic questions. There is, however, such a thing as being too gradual. Widespread irregularities in the Nov. 11 local State of Mexico elections suggest serious backsliding. The government claims to have won 116 out of 121 municipalities by unbelievable margins. Ironically, the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) had worked hard, nominated good candidates and would have won most municipalities in a fairly managed process. President Salinas has reached a turning point in the Mexico state elections. Slow-motion democratization may have become a greater threat to Salinas' economic project than radical political reform.

President Salinas is not solely responsible for this descent into deadlock. Cuauhtemoc Cardenas, leader of the opposition Democratic Revolutionary Party, has refused to engage in the kind of negotiations that could lead to a pacted transition to democracy. Rather, he has preferred to label the PRI unreformable. He is betting on a welling up of public wrath that might destroy his political adversaries, scarcely an attitude of democratic tolerance.

The greatest victim of an electoral standoff could be Salinas' most precious project, the FTA. Free-trade opponents in the United States, realizing that they have already lost the economic argument, will try to use noneconomic arguments to derail an agreement and cloak their own protectionist motivations. They may attempt to link a FTA with Mexican electoral purity. Advocates of a FTA point out that a free-trade agreement is not an act of charity nor is it a reward to Mexico for good behavior. Rather, an FTA is in the economic interest of the United States and should be pursued for that reason alone.

Bush is fighting a rising tide of protection and recession at home. Clearly, he has made a negotiation and congressional passage of a free-trade agreement with Mexico one of the top priorities of his administration. Unsavory Mexican elections will only provide FTA opponents with new ammunition.

The State of Mexico election should serve as a wake-up call for President Salinas. There is time to recoup from this setback. Mexico will hold important midterm elections for seven governorships, the entire Chamber of Deputies and half of all Senate seats in the spring. There may be a silver lining in this dark cloud -- the lessons of the State of Mexico election can still be learned before it is too late.

The writer is director and senior fellow of Mexico Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies