Mexico's PRI Is Said to Keep Raising Funds in a Big Way

Despite campaign-reform plan, Salinas's party reportedly persists in pressing for mega-donations

IS Mexico's ruling party quietly holding sequels to the "millionaire's banquet?"

Last February, a scandal erupted over a fund-raising dinner where two dozen of Mexico's wealthiest businessmen dined with President Carlos Salinas de Gortari and pledged an average of $25 million each to fund the 1994 presidential campaign. The amounts are huge, but the recovery credited to Mr. Salinas has been a profitable time for businessmen here.

The ensuing political imbroglio prompted the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) to announce a voluntary cap on campaign contributions two weeks later. Individual contributions would be no more than one million pesos ($325,000), promised PRI officials. Contributions from corporations, foreign entities, and religious groups would be forbidden.

But a front-page Aug. 9 article in a respected financial daily, El Financiero, is fueling opposition accusations that the PRI is seeking an unfair advantage by once again breaking bread with the business community in pursuit of mega-donations.

"It is managed with great secrecy but we all know what it means when one of the guests of [former Finance Minister Antonio] Ortiz Mena calls to invite you for lunch," says an unnamed businessman quoted in the article. The source said that the occasions offer "little alternative" than to contribute.

Mr. Ortiz Mena was the host of the February supper. The guests of that meal are now "captains" in charge of what the article calls a "national crusade" to raise funds for the ruling party.

Such practices are not new to Mexican politics. But the article says the PRI is willing to break its own proposed campaign-finance rules because it is in a hurry to raise the money before the reforms, including limits on individual donations, become law. The bill goes before the Mexican Congress next week, in an extraordinary session of the legislature called to enact a number of electoral reforms. A PRI spokesman says the party has "no comment" on the article's claims. The opposition is not so quiescent .

"If true, this is a major blow to equity in campaign financing, the credibility of the PRI, and our democratic system in general," says Felipe Calderon Hinojosa, secretary-general of the conservative National Action Party (PAN). "It calls into question the seriousness of Mexican political reforms."

The PRI has not lost a presidential election since 1929. It has a decisive majority in the legislature. But the PRI recently announced a series of reform proposals promoted as opening Mexican politics to greater participation by other parties. Among the reforms is a proposal to limit party campaign sending. But the PAN party leader questions how limited PRI spending would be. "We're still talking about a lot of money," notes Mr. Calderon.

For the first time ever, the PRI is proposing limiting party spending in the 1994 presidential election to 333 million pesos (about $108 million). The PRI would also be allowed to spend approximately another 300 million pesos at the same time for the concurrent 1994 congressional elections. But if the reports of the "millionaire's banquet" and subsequent fund-raising activities are accurate, the PRI is building a campaign war chest of more than $600 million.

The PAN, a smaller party with fewer expenses, is proposing spending limits of 45 million pesos (about $15 million) for the presidential campaign plus a total of 90 million ($30 million) for the Senate and lower house congressional campaigns.

In a country where the minimum daily wage is about four dollars, the PRI proposal has been jumped on by local political cartoonists. One pokes fun at United States President Clinton, noting he couldn't afford to be president of Mexico. In the 1992 US elections, the Democratic and Republican presidential candidates each spent a total of $55 million, which is provided by the federal government. The US does not limit campaign spending if no federal funds are accepted.

PRI spokesman Antonio Mandonado y Huerta qualifies the PRI campaign spending proposal as only "a proposal with inexact figures." He says, "The precise reform will emerge next week from discussions in the congress with opposition parties."

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