The colorful inflatable hammers held aloft by supporters chanting, "Hard, hard, hard!," as in "Hit 'em hard!" say it all: This is a campaign event for Roberto Madrazo, the self-described rebel candidate for president of Mexico within the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI).
For the first time, Mexico's long-governing PRI is holding a primary to choose its presidential candidate, traditionally handpicked by the outgoing president. Now as the diminutive, mustachioed Mr. Madrazo - whose last name means "hard blow" in Mexican slang - arrives at PRI headquarters to deliver a speech, he is like a walking question mark.
How far will the PRI's bad boy take his attacks against Francisco Labastida Ochoa, the presumed preference of President Ernesto Zedillo? Madrazo has called Mr. Labastida the "official candidate" for months, raising doubts about the man who does indeed appear to be the principle beneficiary of the PRI's legendary vote-delivering machine.
This became evident amid devastating floods and mudslides that have claimed at least 350 lives in the past week. Labastida was criticized in the press when aid packages bearing his name were distributed in Puebla state. Mr. Zedillo, meanwhile, chastised candidates who criticized the government's response to the disaster. "We do not want to think that those who are speaking out ... are doing it, not out of concern for the people, but for personal political interest," he said Monday in the mountain city of Teziutlan.
Should Madrazo lose a tight party race to Labastida in the Nov. 7 primary, will he stick with the PRI or bolt and run for president with another party?
That may sound like the usual political intrigue - the equivalent of speculation around Pat Buchanan in the United States. But for Mexico, where the six-year cycle of presidential politics has been a source of violence, instability, and economic setbacks over the past decade, speculation over the PRI's unity and Madrazo's future in particular is more than just political parlor talk.
Labastida is considered the front-runner, although a new Indemerc Louis Harris poll released Oct. 8 shows Madrazo with a comfortable lead in the four-candidate PRI race. The poll also found that should Madrazo leave after the primary, about half of PRI's voters claim they would continue to support him.
"There's a big risk of a rupture in the party, and that would entail all kinds of grave consequences," says Jacaranda Pineda Chvez, a PRI congresswoman and firebrand Madrazo supporter. Ms. Pineda says, "If the party base sees that the PRI really isn't changing and the apparatus continues to support one candidate despite talk of democracy, then I think disenchantment could trigger a straying to other parties."
Nine months before Mexico's July 2 presidential vote, many observers are already calling the election the PRI's to lose. "The PRI has undertaken a genuinely competitive [primary] process that has enhanced its prospects, but on the other hand it can't afford to lose any section of ... support," says Alberto Arnaut, a political specialist at Mexico City's Colegio de Mexico. "An open internal conflict could be its downfall."
The PRI has always had internal rivalries, but they have been accentuated as Mexico's presidential system has weakened, loosening the president's iron grip, and as opposition parties have grown more competitive. The assassination of PRI candidate Luis Donaldo Colosio during the 1994 presidential race was the result of a still-unresolved internal party war, analysts believe.
The current battle is between foreign-educated technocrats and cool, well-paid administrators on the one hand, versus populist politicians and party "dinosaurs," the old-style operatives who profited under the PRI's patronage system, on the other.
"Madrazo's base of supporters is in the thousands of PRIistas who feel abandoned and disregarded by the technocrats who have dominated the party" since the early 1980s, says Mr. Arnaut. Former governor of Puebla state Manuel Bartlett, the third of four candidates in the PRI primary, is cut from the same cloth, Arnaut adds. But Madrazo has been more successful with television advertising and has gone further with memorable attack ads, the likes of which Mexico has not seen before. One new spot represents Labastida as a lying Pinocchio.
Before Madrazo's recent appearance before a medium-size crowd at PRI headquarters, Congresswoman Pineda told the crowd, "All the apparatus of the federal government is supporting Labastida, and in states where the governor is not from the PRI, the party is doing it."
On the same day, Labastida was having breakfast in the state of Queretero with 5,000 PRI supporters, most of whom were bused in for the occasion in true PRI style. The Labastida camp maintains that rally numbers simply show the popularity of their candidate. They also claim that Madrazo is paying thousands of campaign workers with soft money from some of Mexico's old PRI fortunes - a claim the Madrazo campaign denies.
In any case, Madrazo would appear to have little room to condemn the PRI's vote-getting ways. In 1995, he followed in his father's footsteps by running successfully for governor of the eastern state of Tabasco. But his election was so tainted, according to sources close to an investigation carried out by the Zedillo administration, that Madrazo was asked by Zedillo to give up the governorship.
Madrazo refused, sealing his reputation as a champion of antibureaucratic decentralization for some, and as a tainted, small-time caudillo for others.
For Jess Feregrino Feregrino, a cattle rancher who traveled two hours to attend Madrazo's speech, his candidate is definitely the former.
"We are the opposition within the party," says Mr. Feregrino. "We want a reversal of the PRI's drift away from the people back to the party's roots."
He adds, "If Nov. 7 [the primary] turns out to be a day where the party pulls for its official candidate, then I think a lot of us will say goodbye."
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society