Mexico's Ruling Party Strives to Stay on Top

FRACTURED and failing at the polls, Mexico's ruling party has chosen a new leader to raise its flagging prospects as the world's longest-ruling party.

The Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) on Saturday replaced Maria de los Angeles Moreno Uriegas, who took over the party reins only last December, with Labor Secretary Santiago Onate Laborde.

The ascension of Mr. Onate, a former national deputy and past occupant of various party posts, suggests a party anxious for a politician who could reunite the PRI's increasingly factionalized groups.

"Unity among the different sectors of the PRI is necessary to provide Mexico with a better future," said Onate, in his acceptance speech.

Only last month Onate was lauded for bringing together, in the midst of one of the country's worst economic crises, the president of Mexico's largest labor union and the president of the country's largest business organization.

Ms. Moreno Uriegas's ouster points up the depth of party dissatisfaction with its electoral fortunes this year and the degree to which fissures within the party's long-monolithic facade are troubling party rulers.

The PRI's rule of Mexico went virtually unchallenged from 1929 until 1989, when the arrival of Carlos Salinas de Gortari to the Mexican presidency opened the country to a somewhat diversified power structure, including entrepreneurs and young, highly educated technocrats.

Mexico's economic opening under Mr. Salinas also facilitated the development of an increasingly active civil society, while the conservative opposition National Party (PAN) won its first governorships, beginning in 1989.

All of these developments left party leaders split and in an apparent quandary over how to keep the PRI a viable political and electoral force.

While party leaders recognize that Moreno Uriegas could not be faulted for these broader troubles, analysts say, many leading PRIistas did lay at her feet the PRI's almost uniformly negative election tally this year.

The party has lost three of four governor's races to date in 1995, while the PAN has made significant inroads in former PRI bastions in other elections as well.

A PRI leadership reshuffle became more a matter of when, rather than if, after the party failed to win back from the PAN the governorship in the state of Baja California on Aug. 6. Joining Moreno Uriegas in packing bags at party headquarters is Secretary-General Pedro Joaquin Coldwell, who had been sent to Baja California on the unsuccessful mission to win back the first state the PRI had ever lost.

For many PRIistas and analysts alike, Moreno Uriegas's inability to demonstrate capable leadership and reverse the party's splintering at an extremely sensitive time made her departure necessary.

In March the PRI set up a National Commission for Party Reform to culminate in the party's top-to-bottom reorganization to be sealed at an October party national assembly.

But analysts like Alfonso Zarate Flores, publisher of the Mexican Political Letter, in Mexico City, fault the "reform for the future" for its dominance by the PRI's old guard.

As evidence of Moreno Uriegas's inability to stop the PRI's internal battling and to keep the reform process moving, the party's national assembly was put off at least until late November. Some observers guess it won't actually take place until spring 1996.

Now it will be Onate's turn to see if the PRI is salvageable - or to find out if, in the words of Mexican Nobel winner Octavio Paz, the party is destined to "disappear like a relic."

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