PRI: a saga of cooperation, cooption

Call it the ``octopus.'' With tentacles stretching into every sector of society, the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) has been able to control opposition groups and prevent social chaos in Mexico for nearly six decades. Despite a small army of opposition parties, the PRI remains the center and circumference of Mexican politics because of its complete alliance with the state. The coalition was forged in 1929, when Mexico was still struggling to emerge from the political chaos left by the 1910 Mexican Revolution.

Based loosely on the concept of ``revolutionary nationalism,'' the party was so broad that it bound left-leaning peasants with right-wing industrialists. PRI groups were formed for nearly every sector of society. Today, the PRI's influence extends to cabdrivers, journalists, intellectuals, even the scavengers scouring city dumps.

The results were remarkable: The unraveled nation sewed itself together and prepared the way for five decades of peace and growth. Using cooperation, cooptation, and rigid control, the PRI has averted social instability: In all these years, there have been no national strikes, no widespread protests, and no opposition victories in any national or gubernatorial election.

But now, as the old-fashioned party fights to keep control over a restless and rapidly modernizing society, its dark side has emerged. To preserve its unblemished election record, the PRI has resorted to blatant fraud - especially in the north, where the right-wing National Action Party is mounting an uncomfortably strong challenge. And many disgruntled Mexicans say, the facade of social unity hides the reality of social stagnation: They don't dare protest, because economic survival often depends on party loyalty.

More an electoral machine than a typical political party, the PRI has no independence from the state. PRI officials admit that times have changed. But they point to the recent unveiling of six PRI candidates - the first public showing in history - as evidence that the party is still vital and flexible. Besides, they say, the PRI is the only game in town.

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