Bucking ruling party tradition

Mexico's ruling-party politicians are sharpening their hooves for the traditional ``buffalo stampede.'' Once the Institutional Revolutionary Party's presidential candidate is unveiled, friends and foes horde around him, hoping to stomp their way into a top-level government post. But as officials prepare for the ``bufalada,'' a trio of opposition groups is trying to buck the tide with more force than ever before. Perhaps the most surprising protest has sprung from a small band of prominent ruling-party dissidents known as the Democratic Current. Led by former governor Cuauht'emoc C'ardenas - son of Mexico's most revered president - the Current has defied the party's hallowed unity by publicly denouncing the secretive process of choosing the PRI candidate. Despite its name, the Current's goal is not full-fledged democracy. It has no intention of loosening the PRI's grip on political life. While pushing for populist economic policies, the dissidents are asking for US-style primaries, in which PRI candidates openly campaign and are chosen on their merit by PRI activists.

Their efforts have borne some fruit. In August, for the first time in its 58-year history, the PRI publicly named its six candidates and held a limited forum for their ideas. It was apparently the last concession the PRI would make. Last Monday, PRI leaders declined to register Mr. C'ardenas as a PRI candidate. Having played all its cards, the movement's future is in doubt.

Heberto Castillo, presidential candidate of the Mexican Socialist Party (PMS) - a revitalized coalition of once-fractured leftist parties - wants to form an electoral alliance with the Current. But Current leaders are reluctant to leave the PRI since it would mean sacrificing party status and clout.

The PMS coalition has pumped new life into the left, which had degenerated into ideological in-fighting. But so far the PMS has only limited support.

Nevertheless, the PMS could leapfrog the National Action Party (PAN) into the number two position in the 1988 election, Mexican political scholars say. The conservative PAN, which has rallied voters mainly in the northern industrial states, still stokes its campaign with memories of the 1986 Chihuahua State elections. In a tightly contested race with the PAN, the PRI ensured victory with widespread fraud.

Jes'us Gonz'alez Schmal, a PAN deputy contending for the party candidacy, says the PAN must continue to expand its base throughout Mexico. ``The Mexican people seem to need a strong father,'' he says, referring to the PRI's hierarchical structure. ``But it's not to be found in the PAN.''

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