Letting light into Mexico politics

Long-ruling party tries switch from handpicked nomination by leader to

Mexico's governing party - which has ruled for a longer streak than any other party in the world - has never kept a list of members. For most of its 70 years in power, the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) simply assumed that being PRIista and Mexican were one and the same.

Now all of Mexico will have an opportunity to gauge who really is a PRIista. With what is being billed as the nation's most competitive presidential election in history coming up next year, the PRI voted on May 17 to hold for the first time a primary in which party "activists and sympathizers" will select the party's presidential candidate.

The decision removes the dedazo, or literally "big finger," the traditional process by which the country's president handpicked the party candidate, who in every election since 1929 has gone on to win the presidency.

More competition now

Faced with the problem of determining just who makes up the party's "activist base," the PRI decided in effect to hold an open primary. The party's problem is that the old arrogance of equating Mexicans with the PRI faithful is no longer possible. Now, when the PRI wins in multiparty elections, it rarely does so with a clear majority. Nine of the country's 31 states plus Mexico City are run by the opposition, and even the lower house of Congress has an opposition majority.

With no official list of party activists, the PRI will hold a primary Nov. 7 in which any Mexican with a voter registration card can participate. The PRI's hope is that Mexicans voting in this first-ever national primary, whether party activists or not, will feel such a part of the PRI's democratic makeover that, in the general election, they will stick with the candidate they helped pick.

"This is a shift of historic dimensions for the PRI and one we hope will be embraced by all kinds of participating citizens as well as the party's activist base," says Jos Natividad, a member of the PRI's national political council. More than 300 of 335 council members voted for the primary option.

At more than a year before the presidential election in July 2000, most political observers still expect the PRI to win the presidency for another six-year term. At least six aspirants are expected to participate in the primary, although Interior Minister Francisco Labastida Ochoa, dubbed by many political observers President Ernesto Zedillo's personal choice, is considered an early favorite.

But two scenarios could still upset the PRI's cart: One would be a debilitating fracture coming out of the party primary, sending unsuccessful - and disgruntled - aspirants to other camps. The other is the possibility of an "anything-but-the-PRI" opposition coalition.

The risk of a party split haunts the PRI, especially since the party's original candidate in the 1994 race, Luis Donaldo Colosio, was shot dead at a Tijuana political rally that year.The murder was never cleared up, but most analysts believe it resulted from a factional power struggle.

More recently the PRI has lost several gubernatorial elections where divisions over the party's candidate opened the door to an opposition victory.

For the presidential election, a single coalition candidate would hold the most promise for the opposition - even while the prospects for agreement among opposition parties on one candidate continue to look dim.

Polls show the public likes the idea of one opposition candidate, and demonstrate how this is probably the only way the PRI can lose in 2000. A national alliance of opposition parties presenting one candidate in the 2000 elections garnered the favor of 45 percent of respondents in a recent poll by the University of Guadalajara's respected Center for Opinion Studies. Matched against an opposition-alliance candidate, the PRI captured 38 percent of respondents - approximately the share of the electorate that is considered the hard-core PRI vote.

But to achieve an opposition alliance, Mexico's center-left Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) and the more conservative National Action Party (PAN) would have to agree on a candidate. Agreement appears all the more difficult with both the PRD and the PAN dominated by determined presidential hopefuls - the PRD's Cuauhtmoc Crdenas, Mexico City mayor and former presidential candidate; and the PAN's Vicente Fox, state governor of Guanajuato.

The PRI comes out of the May 17 party meeting with new democratic credentials. But the party's national primary could still prove to be its undoing, if the primary turns out to be an organizational disaster or collapses in accusations of unfair campaign financing or fraud. The PRI voted to limit primary campaign spending but not to participate in financing.

No more dirty tricks?

The PRD's recent aborted party president election is an example of the kind of disaster the PRI cannot afford. In March the PRD's vote was riddled with such fraud and disorganization that the results were nullified - badly tarnishing the party's image as a plausible alternative to the PRI for running the country.

The much more experienced PRI presumably has the skills to organize a national vote.

But the party also has a reputation for dirty tricks. The stories of massive vote-buying among the poor with chickens and other goodies are Mexican classics. The PRD's Mr. Crdenas claims he lost the 1988 presidential election as a result of a mysterious election-night computer failure within the PRI-held Interior Ministry.

With the presidency hanging in the balance, the PRI will have to convince the longtime faithful that the more questionable campaign tactics of the past are no longer tolerable in a democratic party - especially in a primary where all the candidates are PRIistas.

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