PRI calmly downsizes after defeat

Mexico's PRI yesterday held on to a narrow edge in a crucial state election. PRI is revamping itself.

At the campus-like headquarters of Mexico's dethroned Institutional Revolutionary Party, the employee cafeteria is selling fewer $2.50 lunches these days.

"Things are a lot quieter since the defeat," says Juana Caballero Menez, as she looks over the 10-table restaurant she and her family have managed at PRI central for 30 years.

"There's always a slowdown after a campaign, but this is different. You hear some talk of what the party should do to make a comeback," she adds, "but mostly my customers are worried about their jobs."

Like a giant corporation with products gone out of style and shrinking sales, the political organization that ran Mexico for seven decades is undergoing a historic downsizing. Since its July 2 defeat at the hands of Vicente Fox - the corporate cowboy who on Dec. 1 will become modern Mexico's first non-PRI president - the vanquished PRI has been adapting to its new place as one of Mexico's opposition party.

Political paring

The number of employees at headquarters is down from 1,400 to about 700, says PRI national secretary Sergio Garca Ramrez. Part of the reduction is a normal post-campaign adjustment, he says, but part is also "the result of a big party that accepts its loss and is adjusting to its new circumstances."

Comparing the PRI to Aztec pyramids - some of which lie in ruins not too far from PRI headquarters - Dr. Garca says the PRI added successive layers of bureaucracy over its original base during its decades in power. "Now we're reducing to become a more efficient and responsive party," he says.

The PRI got another jolt Sunday when a gubernatorial election it was expected to win easily ended in a razor-thin advantage for the party's candidate amid cries of a widespread return to the PRI's famous electoral dirty tricks. The race in the state of Tabasco is important because outgoing Gov. Roberto Madrazo, considered a party oldtimer, wants to become PRI's next president.

The retrenchment and reorganization is taking place amid such calm and stability in Mexico that it becomes easy to overlook just how significant this peaceful transition is. The absence of upheaval and confrontation following the PRI's defeat is testimony to how ready Mexico was for a more pluralistic democracy, analysts say. But it also demonstrates the important leadership role Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo played in heading off any violent reaction from his own party.

"Every transition in this country in the last two centuries was with bullets and deaths, so this is a new experience," says political analyst Jorge Chabat. "For me that makes this perhaps the single most important event in Mexico in 200 years, but because of the absence of turmoil it's almost going unnoticed."

Dr. Garca says the PRI's acceptance of defeat reflects a changed party that "accepts and wants political plurality."

But others emphasize different factors. It's easy to forget now that in the July 2 aftermath Mexico "could have been Peru or Yugoslavia," Mr. Chabat says, where autocratic regimes are giving up power amid greater turmoil. The PRI's quiet acceptance of its defeat is thanks in large part to President Zedillo, "who didn't leave the party room for any other response," Chabat says. "He showed himself to be very clever."

Zedillo went on national television July 2, shortly after networks predicted Mr. Fox's victory, and in a serious and presidential tone announced Fox had won. He went on to praise Mexicans for the mature and peaceful manner in which they carried out their civic duty.

Another key to the PRI's peaceful adaptation to its new role is the fact that over the decades it had become more of a job agency than a political party with a definable political ideology.

"In those circumstances, when the PRI surprised everybody and lost to Fox," Chabat says, "people, instead of taking to the streets to defend the past saw the future and responded accordingly." With their first concern their jobs, the armies of public employees that might have been expected to resist the PRI's fall instead cried, 'The king is dead, long live the king," Chabat says.

A case in point is the leader of Mexico's largest labor federation, who warned a week before the election that a Fox victory would be met with strikes and chaos. Within days of the PRI debacle, he was whistling a different tune, calling Fox labor's "buddy."

The PRI's downsizing might indeed leave it a more agile and focused political party, but it also risks denying the party some of the new blood it will need to rebuild. The PRI was always a collection of currents and factions held together by the glue of the Mexican presidency. But without that glue it is still unclear who or what group will emerge to dominate the party.

"A more flexible organization will be good for the PRI, but that won't guarantee its future," says Javier Trevio Cant, a PRI member and former economic policy adviser to defeated PRI presidential candidate Francisco Labastida. "I don't see the young and ambitious activists staying in the party's power structure."

Tapping youthful power

The post-election PRI is a "tower of Babel" with no defining ideology, Mr. Trevio says. "But mostly what we're hearing is this talk of 'returning to our origins,' " he adds, "and to me that means a focus on the past instead of the future, and that means a decline of the party." Given these concerns, he decided to leave his party post.

Trevio is the kind of young and successful member the party would seem to need. Beginning his PRI activism as a college student, Trevio rose in the party to fill high-level posts in several ministries, before being tapped by Mr. Labastida as an economics adviser.

But Trevio was also one of the young technocrats with a foreign master's degree - in his case from Harvard - who over recent years came under growing criticism from party traditionalists. "If you're excluding people for their training and skills," he says, "what does that say about the party's future?"

PRI leader Garca insists the downsizing doesn't imply exclusion of anyone - especially not the young. "When the PRI was established, Mexico was perhaps 80 percent rural," he says. Now the country's future is in its young, urban population, "and this is who we must attract without renouncing our roots."

PRIistas like Trevio aren't sure that can be done.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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