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Mexican dissidents in uphill reform drive. Under the leadership of Caut'emoc C'ardenas, dissidents in Mexico's dominant party are trying to reform the PRI. At stake, they say, is the future of democracy in their land. But they face entrenched interests.

By Dennis VolmanStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / July 29, 1987


For Caut'emoc C'ardenas and his fellow dissidents within Mexico's ruling party, the stakes of their struggle are high - nothing less than the long-term future of Mexican political democracy and stability. For over a decade, the governing Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) has had growing difficulty coping with Mexico's mounting economic and social problems. Yet the party has remained what it was since its consolidation of power in the 1920s, the only game in town.

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Many Mexican and foreign analysts agree that, although the PRI appears to be increasingly unable to lead the country out of its present crisis, it has done a magnificent job in making all other parties, whether of the right or left, marginal.

However, Mr. C'ardenas - a former state governor and the son of Lazaro C'ardenas, one of Mexico's most popular presidents - has laid down a challenge to the party hierarchy by declaring his candidacy for president in next year's election. This is the first time in decades that a candidate, especially one disapproved of by PRI leaders, has openly announced a presidential bid rather than relying on backstairs intrigue to be tapped as the party's nominee by the incumbent head of state.

The heart of the struggle between the party leadership and the dissidents is whether Mr. C'ardenas and his group will be able to make headway in their struggle to democratize the ruling party from within, or will be forced out of the PRI and become just another gadfly party on the government's flanks.

This struggle reached new intensity in May when the PRI central committee formally censured C'ardenas and a fellow dissident, ex-PRI president Porfirio Munoz Ledo.

The initial target for reform for the ``Democratic Current,'' as the dissidents call themselves, is the way that each incumbent president of Mexico handpicks the next PRI presidential candidate, who is virtually assured of election.

C'ardenas strongly opposes this ``unveiling'' of the next candidate. ``We believe,'' he said, ``by struggling against unveiling we are struggling against the whole system of authoritarianism which dominates the party and prevents a creative discussion of solutions for Mexico's problems. If we get rid of unveiling, we can continue democratizing the PRI, all the way down to the party bases.''

C'ardenas believes democratization is necessary because, he says, the party and government leadership have been captured by special-interest groups - cliques in the bureaucracy and around the president, the rich, and entrenched elements of labor-union leadership.

The struggle between the Democratic Current and the leadership is not just another in-house party fight, according to most observers. They share the opinion of one prominent Mexican analyst who says, ``A tired and increasingly ineffective party leadership may still be able to use the banner of party discipline to crush dissent, to block democratization of the PRI, and to stop an open and broader discussion of Mexico's problems and alternative solutions.''

This analyst believes that if the PRI leadership manages to silence reform leaders or relegate them to the fringe, the government, faced with a constantly deteriorating economic and political situation, would probably become more dictatorial. This, in turn, could worsen Mexico's situation and long-run stability, the analyst says.

Some observers of the Mexican scene think that the government might make concessions after President Miguel de la Madrid Hurtado, whose term ends next year, unveils the name of his successor, since the leadership does not want to appear to act under dissident pressure. But others, including the leaders of the Democratic Current and the analyst quoted above, say this attitude is very much part of the problem.