WHEN some members of Mexico's largest left-wing party jeered outgoing President Carlos Salinas de Gortari last week during his final state address, it came as no surprise. They have rejected Mr. Salinas's presidency ever since he was elected six years ago.
What was unusual was that other party members derided the taunting as ``infantile'' and ``counterproductive.''
The Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD), whose presidential candidate many claim was the rightful winner of the 1988 elections, is now divided and weakened. The party fell to third place in elections last August, and PRD moderates warn that if the party does not now acknowledge the incoming government, the Mexican left will lose its place in the debate on expanding democracy.
``The left has traditionally been the spring feeding reform and promoting the country's transformation,'' says Roger Bartra, a former leftist activist and longtime specialist on the Mexican left. ``But if [the PRD] is fighting itself and standing outside the discussion, it will be difficult for it to play that role.''
The PRD shelters a wide band of leftists ranging from former revolutionaries to more traditional nationalists. But a significant portion are ``social democrats'' who fear the party's practice of confronting the long-ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), as well as the right-of-center National Action Party (PAN), will marginalize the left.
``After six years of confrontation and an absence of dialogue with the government, we risk finding ourselves disqualified from the reform process that the PRI and the PAN will carry on without us,'' says Gilberto Rincon Gallardo, an outgoing PRD legislator and member of the party's executive commitee.
What moderates want
Mr. Rincon and other PRD moderates are calling for the party to acknowledge the victory of the PRI's Ernesto Zedillo Ponce de Leon in the Aug. 21 presidential election and to ``get on with a dialogue for reform.''
But that is proving to be a difficult step for hard-liners. Party members who have admitted to meeting privately with Mr. Zedillo and other PRI leaders have been chastised. Some PRD legislators say they will sit as independents in the National Congress.
Another sign of how willing the PRD is to work with the new Zedillo government will be the tone it takes in the election ratification process, which starts today and must be completed by Nov. 15.
In the meantime, the party's unsuccessful presidential candidate in the August elections, Cauhtemoc Cardenas Solorzano, speaks vaguely of participation in a national dialogue but continues to refuse to acknowledge Mr. Zedillo's victory. He says ``innumerable irregularities'' make it ``impossible to determine who really won'' the presidential race, and suggests that the incoming government could suffer the same ``lack of legitimacy'' as the Salinas government.
Such talk runs counter to the consensus among objective election observers, who agree that while the elections were not whistle-clean, Zedillo is still the clear winner. ``But the public doesn't know if the PRD admits this or not,'' Mr. Barta says. ``What they're getting,'' he adds, ``is a confusing picture of turmoil rather than a clear idea of what the party stands for.''
Some PRD sympathizers are even calling for a ``new left'' to emerge. Having ``come to the hard but inevitable conclusion that we can no longer expect from this party any significant contribution to the country's democratic transformation,'' wrote Jorge Alcocer, a PRD founder, in a recent newspaper commentary, ``it's now time ... to form a new political force.''
The good old days
Things were once brighter for Mexico's left. In 1988, the youthful PRD - joined by the moderates of the self-destructed Mexican communist party and other left-wing sympathizers - was riding high. Led by Mr. Cardenas, a former PRI member, son of a reform-minded Mexican president, and the party's presidential candidate, the party registered important electoral successes.
Although Cardenas was officially credited with only 26 percent of the vote, PRD members and many independent analysts concur that he was probably the true victor in the 1988 race, which officially was won by Salinas, the PRI candidate.
The party's policy of refusing to recognize the Salinas presidency won initial sympathy, but by the early '90s many PRD members considered it counterproductive. By last year, the party's moderates were on the verge of taking control, says Mr. Bartra - but the January 1994 armed uprising of Zapatista rebels in Chiapas State changed that.
``The Zapatistas were an immediate popular success among Mexicans as defenders of the oppressed, and that fortified the more traditional leftist view within the PRD,'' Bartra says.
Unfortunately for the PRD, however, that identification with the Chiapas rebels also fortified the public's association of the party with political violence.
Academic researchers have found that average Mexicans see the political violence that has ravaged the party - nearly 300 PRD activists have been killed in the past six years - and conclude the PRD is a violent organization.
``We are the victims of state violence, but keeping ourselves outside the system has opened us up to this association with violence,'' says Rene Arce, an incoming PRD legislator.
Given that neither faction of the party can claim a majority, some PRD members and observers see the polarization continuing indefinitely - and with definite consequences for the country's political reform process.