Mexico's political make-over

The dominant PRI party recast itself, drawing manyvoters to Sunday'sprimary.

Mexico's Institutional Revolutionary Party, which has ruled for most of the 20th century by hook or by crook, comes out of the country's first-ever presidential primary Sunday with a transformed image.

The PRI is set to enter the 21st century - and next summer's presidential election - looking like Mexico's most democratic party. But not everyone is convinced the new look is genuine.

Doubters of the PRI's democratization will have to contend with the fact that 10 million Mexicans, a much higher number than expected, turned out to vote. This enthusiastic response is seen as revivifying a party that has shown weakness of late, and is an endorsement of PRI reforms aimed at reducing the party's traditional paternalism and authoritarianism.

"What the public is saying with its high participation is that people believed in the process," says Soledad Loaeza, a political analyst at Mexico City's Colegio de Mexico.

'Dinosaurs' vs. reformists

The success of the PRI primary is likely to greatly reduce if not end the long-running battle between the party's old line, known as the "dinosaurs," and the reformists. The latter have argued for years that the party either will open up to new currents in Mexican society and learn to confront fairly a growing opposition, or perish.

Yet while Mexico's principal opposition parties have nominated unopposed candidates virtually by acclamation for the 2000 race, the PRI held a bruising four-man open primary that Sunday gave a decisive victory to Francisco Labastida Ochoa, a former governor, ambassador, and cabinet secretary. Mr. Labastida's victory was expected, but the margin by which he won was a surprise. By mid-Monday Labastida had carried 272 of 300 voting districts.

The PRI's most optimistic estimates had been that 7 million Mexicans (out of approximately 55 million eligible voters) would participate in the first-ever party primary, but instead more than 10 million went to the polls. The turnout boosts the legitimacy of both the Labastida candidacy and the PRI's internal moves towards democracy.

One cloud that had threatened on the PRI's horizon dissipated yesterday when runner-up primary candidate Roberto Madrazo accepted Labastida's triumph and said he would remain a political force within the PRI.

Speculation had run high that Mr. Madrazo, who spent most of his campaign attacking Labastida as the "official" candidate in an unfair process, might drop out of the party and drain away votes. With more than half of the votes counted yesterday Madrazo had only won 21 districts and received half as many votes as Labastida.

The PRI has won every Mexican presidential election since 1929, with a candidate hand picked by the outgoing president in a tradition called the dedazo, or "big finger." President Ernesto Zedillo's decision to give up the big finger in favor of an open primary did not convince most political observers - or even most ordinary Mexicans - that the dedazo was dead.

"The dedazo may have ended, but it was replaced by ... the apparatus, the machine," says Mexico City political writer Carlos Monsivais.

Scattered reports of stolen voting booths or bought votes were reported, but nothing like the generalized fraud that affected elections in the past. Nor was there anything approaching the chaos that caused the left-leaning Party of the Democratic Revolution, one of the PRI's principal rivals, to cancel the results of a national party presidential vote it held earlier this year.

Party's image improves

Yet polls show that the PRI's image among voters has continued to improve over recent months, and that despite - or perhaps because of - a primary campaign that was heavy on a kind of negative campaigning that Mexicans had never been exposed to before. Mexicans approved of the primary as a means of picking the governing party's candidate, analysts say, but they also rejected the negative advertising that was a hallmark particularly of the Madrazo campaign.

"It's looking as though in Mexico the negative campaigning doesn't work," says Manuel Barberena, president of the Pearson polling group in Mexico, who worked with the Labastida campaign. Stanley Greenberg, president of Greenberg Research International, a US polling and market study group, adds that a race that "started out quite close early on" between Labastida and Madrazo widened through October. And he correlates that widening to Labastida dropping negative ads while Madrazo continued with his.

Wake-up call

The shock that awoke the PRI to the imminence of its demise was the midterm elections of 1997, when the PRI's share of the total vote dropped to 37 percent. In those elections the PRI for the first time lost both its majority in the National Assembly and the Mexico City mayor's race. After that debacle the PRI began experimenting with ways for the public to participate in political affairs, like primaries in gubernatorial races.

Sunday's primary was the next step in that process and suggests a party catching up with a country that changed while it slept - or carried on its internal war - analysts say. The primary was a "reaction to a much more plural country" and an "act of self-preservation" before the real possibility that the PRI could lose in 2000, says Ms. Loaeza.

Mr. Madrazo is expected to use his runner-up status to negotiate for status within the party. But Labastida campaign officials maintain he would have the upper hand in any peace talks.

Still, Labastida campaign director Esteban Moctezuma says the PRI wants Madrazo "inside" to show that it is an "inclusive" party. The departure of the second-highest contender would also set a "stigma" for future primary processes.

The other reason, of course, is that an independent presidential run by Madrazo would have drained off votes from Labastida. Moctezuma says, "As of tomorrow we will have our guns trained on [Vicente] Fox," the candidate of the center-right National Action Party who is considered the candidate to beat.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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