After loss, PRI's dinosaurs fight for survival

Still reeling from its July 2 defeat, the PRI begins to reformulate its raison d'tre.

Mexicans who voted their disgust with the country's long-ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party in this month's national elections may not care much that the party that ruled their lives for so long could split up, or even die.

"I don't think too many people are going to miss the PRI," says Jorge Chabat, a Mexico City political analyst.

But the PRI's leadership battle does matter to president-elect Vicente Fox,the first non-PRIista to win Mexico's presidency in seven decades. Who wins control of the PRI may well determine how much cooperation Mr. Fox can count on from a party that will be the single largest force in both houses of Congress. The PRI won 209 of 500 lower-house seats in the July 2 vote, and 60 of 128 Senate seats.

If the PRI leadership remains in the hands of pro-reform technocrats allied with President Ernesto Zedillo, Fox can expect more support for stalled reforms like privatizing electric utilities. But if the more nationalist wing made up of the party's so-called "dinosaurs" prevails, Fox's initiatives will face more trouble.

The months ahead will be tumultuous for the PRI as it battles over who should lead it and where its power now lies. But observers like Mr. Chabat downplay the effect that turbulence will have on the country as a whole.

With the PRI's fall "the makeup of Mexican political parties is going to change in the coming years, but that's not a traumatic prospect for many Mexicans," says Chabat. "When Communist parties fell [in former Soviet bloc countries] there was nostalgia in some cases because of crumbling economic conditions. But here the economy is in good shape."

That kind of talk does little to soothe Mexicans like Rosario Tortolero Damy, a Mexico City lawyer and lifelong PRIista. "Perhaps this was something that had to happen," she says of the PRI's first loss of Mexico's presidential palace in 71 years.

But she adds that a funny thing happened with her party's astonishing defeat: She became a more fervent PRIista. "Now only the true party believers will stay on, and we can build something new and stronger from the social bases so long forgotten."

Ms. Tortolero is one of thousands of lifelong PRIistas who are still reeling from the victory of the cowboy-populist Fox. Now the party that until July 1 was still equated with the government - because it was for so long practically interchangeable with the government - is a shambles.

President Ernesto Zedillo on Tuesday summoned the PRI's 21 state governors to map a plan of action for the party's "transition"and to offer the country a show of PRI unity. But a rebellion is already in the works, with six governors - led by party bad boy Roberto Madrazo - saying they would announce their own plan for the PRI's future today. Still, the party that ran the country with an all-powerful presidency is already dead, most analysts say.

The question that remains, they add, is whether party leaders realize that what the PRI once meant to Mexico has changed. A PRI that sees itself as an opposition force, and works to build on the sizable support it still holds among sectors of the Mexican population, can rise again. But a party wallowing in nostalgia for a bygone era is likely to disappear, analysts say.

"The PRI is like the character in the movie 'Ghost' who is already dead but goes around as if he were still alive because he doesn't realize yet what has happened," says Chabat. "The PRI can come back, but unless it's ... ready to stand on equal footing with other political forces, I don't see a very brilliant future."

Still, if party unity is what will determine the PRI's future, the first days since Fox triumphed are not promising. No sooner was Fox's victory digested than some PRI leaders began calling for accounts to be settled.

President Zedillo, basking in international acclaim for ushering in Mexico's democratic era, was openly accused in his own party of engineering the PRI's downfall.

"President Zedillo has lost his capacity to guide ... and he must not lead the party one minute more!" insisted unsuccessful PRI presidential aspirant Manuel Bartlett, before applause at a post-election meeting of the PRI's National Executive Committee.

But even for many PRIistas, Mr. Bartlett is emblematic of the party's dinosaurs, who are known for their authoritarian stance and suspicions of innovations like last November's first-ever presidential primary. There is perhaps even stronger rejection of the younger, often foreign-educated techies.

So who can lead the PRI out of its internal battles to a new role in Mexico? Tortolero says it should be Mr. Madrazo, the young populist who almost defeated PRI establishment candidate Francisco Labastida in the PRI's presidential primary.

"Madrazo knows the bases, and above all he's a politician and not a technocrat," she says.

"He can rally activists who know we have to get in there and work our neighborhoods if the PRI is going to survive."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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