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More politics as usual in Mexico's race for presidency?

This week, negotiations to form an alliance opposing veteran PRI party

By Special to The Christian Science Monitor / October 1, 1999



MEXICO CITY

For Mexicans looking for a change from their country's 70-year-old regime, the likely outcome of next July's presidential election is starting to look dishearteningly familiar. An opposition divided between two strong candidates once again allows the ruling party to hold on to the presidency.

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Surprises are still possible. Mexico's governing Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), experimenting for the first time with a primary to choose its presidential standard-bearer, could spawn a dissident candidate who would divide the PRI's traditional labor and rural strongholds.

But after this week's collapse of negotiations to form a broad opposition alliance - and with the four PRI presidential candidates so far pledging to stick with their party after the Nov. 7 primary - hopes have dimmed for introducing Mexico to party alternation before the next century.

The country will "enter a new century with a government that looks more like one from the previous century," says political analyst Alfonso Zrate Flores.

No more 'coronations'

The ironic effect of the alliance collapse is that the PRI, which has thrown out its time-honored system under which the president handpicked his successor , now looks like a renovated, democratic force. And the opposition parties, which have worked long for a breakthrough to end the PRI's domination of Mexico, are now fielding candidates who were coronated in one-man party nominations.

On the surface, the idea of an opposition alliance broke up over disagreements on how a single alliance presidential candidate would be selected. The center-left Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) favored a primary vote, while the center-right National Action Party (PAN) favored a series of polls. But underlying the alliance's stillbirth were ideological differences, and the strong personalities of the opposition's two main candidates.

"The motor for the alliance idea was really the repositioning of the PRI over the last two years, it was not a logical merger of like minds," says Mr. Zarate. The PRI hit its low point in 1997 when it lost a majority in the lower house of Congress and the Mexico City mayor's office.

But since then the party has fashioned what Guadalajara-based analyst Csar Morones calls the "rebirth of the PRI," winning elections in states that had been signed off to the opposition. Zarate figures the PRI's base of support has climbed back to about 40 percent.

Support from big business

The conservative PAN is heavily supported by Mexico's business interests and is closely associated with the Roman Catholic Church. The PRD, on the other hand, is historically tied to Mexico's nationalized industries and civil rights.

On top of those differences is the presence of two determined presidential wannabes.

The PRD's candidate, two-time presidential runner Cuauhtmoc Crdenas is the son of Lzaro Crdenas, who nationalized Mexico's oil industry in 1936. Despite poor showings in polls after two years as mayor of Mexico City, Mr. Crdenas appears convinced that the third time is the charm.

Crdenas officially stepped down from the mayor's chair Wednesday and was replaced by the first woman to govern the Mexican capital, Maria del Rosario Robles.

The PAN is fielding former Guanajuato governor and one-time Coca-Cola Mexico president Vicente Fox, who rides high in national polls after nearly two years of campaigning and has never shown much enthusiasm for an opposition coalition.

Polls consistently showed that Mexican voters wanted such an alliance, but how they would have responded to such a candidate on the ballot will remain a mystery.

Doubts about July elections

Still, the gospel of an alliance as a sure winner suffered a blow Sunday when an opposition alliance fielding a PAN candidate for governor in the northern state of Coahuila was trounced by the PRI candidate. That election fueled doubts that, when it came down to next July's ballot, Crdenas fans would automatically vote for Fox - even if Crdenas ended up telling them to.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society