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PRI calmly downsizes after defeat

Mexico's PRI yesterday held on to a narrow edge in a crucial state election. PRI is revamping itself.

By Howard LaFranchi Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / October 17, 2000



MEXICO CITY

At the campus-like headquarters of Mexico's dethroned Institutional Revolutionary Party, the employee cafeteria is selling fewer $2.50 lunches these days.

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"Things are a lot quieter since the defeat," says Juana Caballero Menez, as she looks over the 10-table restaurant she and her family have managed at PRI central for 30 years.

"There's always a slowdown after a campaign, but this is different. You hear some talk of what the party should do to make a comeback," she adds, "but mostly my customers are worried about their jobs."

Like a giant corporation with products gone out of style and shrinking sales, the political organization that ran Mexico for seven decades is undergoing a historic downsizing. Since its July 2 defeat at the hands of Vicente Fox - the corporate cowboy who on Dec. 1 will become modern Mexico's first non-PRI president - the vanquished PRI has been adapting to its new place as one of Mexico's opposition party.

Political paring

The number of employees at headquarters is down from 1,400 to about 700, says PRI national secretary Sergio Garca Ramrez. Part of the reduction is a normal post-campaign adjustment, he says, but part is also "the result of a big party that accepts its loss and is adjusting to its new circumstances."

Comparing the PRI to Aztec pyramids - some of which lie in ruins not too far from PRI headquarters - Dr. Garca says the PRI added successive layers of bureaucracy over its original base during its decades in power. "Now we're reducing to become a more efficient and responsive party," he says.

The PRI got another jolt Sunday when a gubernatorial election it was expected to win easily ended in a razor-thin advantage for the party's candidate amid cries of a widespread return to the PRI's famous electoral dirty tricks. The race in the state of Tabasco is important because outgoing Gov. Roberto Madrazo, considered a party oldtimer, wants to become PRI's next president.

The retrenchment and reorganization is taking place amid such calm and stability in Mexico that it becomes easy to overlook just how significant this peaceful transition is. The absence of upheaval and confrontation following the PRI's defeat is testimony to how ready Mexico was for a more pluralistic democracy, analysts say. But it also demonstrates the important leadership role Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo played in heading off any violent reaction from his own party.

"Every transition in this country in the last two centuries was with bullets and deaths, so this is a new experience," says political analyst Jorge Chabat. "For me that makes this perhaps the single most important event in Mexico in 200 years, but because of the absence of turmoil it's almost going unnoticed."

Dr. Garca says the PRI's acceptance of defeat reflects a changed party that "accepts and wants political plurality."

But others emphasize different factors. It's easy to forget now that in the July 2 aftermath Mexico "could have been Peru or Yugoslavia," Mr. Chabat says, where autocratic regimes are giving up power amid greater turmoil. The PRI's quiet acceptance of its defeat is thanks in large part to President Zedillo, "who didn't leave the party room for any other response," Chabat says. "He showed himself to be very clever."