Mexico's Chameleons

A political party that's been in power for seven decades knows by now how to reinvent itself. Mexico's Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) is not loaded down with dinosaurs, as is often said, but with chameleons.

That's why PRI's first-ever presidential primary on Sunday transformed its skin just enough to boost its chances of winning a general election next July 2.

Mexican voters, who are growing savvier at a faster clip than PRI is, welcomed an end to the tradition of PRI powerful elders (the "dinosaurs") picking the next presidential candidate with the dedazo, or "big finger." They turned out in higher-than-expected numbers (10 million) and put their own finger on party reformer Francisco Labastida Ochoa.

PRI has had to shift its power-clinging ways beyond patronage, ballot fraud, social services, and historic revolutionary rhetoric. In the 1980s, it offered market capitalism, only to blow it with the 1995 peso crisis.

A close call with losing elections in 1997 forced PRI to become more democratic. It adopted a US-style primary - including negative campaign ads that just turned voters off. The move was risky. The primary's runner-up, Roberto Madrazo, might have bolted from the party, splitting it badly. But now he's staying put.

But just how deep is PRI's metamorphosis? The answer is critical if Mexico is to become less corrupt and more equitably prosperous - and is not to be seen in the US as a source of migrants and drugs.

PRI's self-perservation instincts will keep it just democratic enough to stay ahead of ever-smarter voters without rupturing its autocratic unity. Its political machine and abilities at ballot fraud are still formidable.

The more PRI forces itself to respond to voters, the more we like its colors - and the likelihood that Mexico might someday have a change of power to another party.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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