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Ruling Party and Tradition Under Attack : Mexico's Campaign Goes Topsy-Turvy

September 25, 1987|DAN WILLIAMS | Times Staff Writer

MEXICO CITY — The buildup to the selection of a presidential candidate by Mexico's ruling party is being upstaged by dissidents and opposition politicians intent on breaking political rules of long standing.

Customarily, the script calls for the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) to announce its candidate around this time--perhaps in a matter of days and certainly by mid-October. The nominee, in keeping with tradition, will be the personal choice of the incumbent president--in this case, Miguel de la Madrid.

Public anticipation of the choice usually monopolizes the Mexican political season. After all, the PRI nominee is considered the sure winner in next year's election. Historically, the opposition candidate is an also-ran.

But in recent days, the PRI's secretive selection process has been overshadowed by a series of electoral innovations and challenges by opposition groups and even members of the PRI itself.

The activity indicates that one of the big issues in the forthcoming presidential campaign will be the nature of democracy in Mexico.

As it is, the campaign is already the most topsy-turvy in modern Mexican history. As one political wag observed, only half in jest, the conservative opposition is calling for revolution, the Communists are calling for free elections, and the normally spendthrift PRI is preaching fiscal restraint.

One prominent challenge to the PRI, which has ruled Mexico for 58 years, continues to be from within the party. A PRI group called the Democratic Current has nominated its own presidential candidate and is calling for a floor fight at a yet unscheduled PRI convention. The Current is against the tradition that permits outgoing presidents to make the selection, preferring instead a primary election.

Partisans of the Current are carrying out dissident PRI activities of a kind not seen here in 40 years. Last week, the Current organized a march to the Zocalo, the main square of Mexico City, to demand an open convention. Then, on Monday, supporters marched on the PRI's downtown national headquarters to request that their leader, Cuahtemoc Cardenas, the former governor of Michoacan state, be accepted as an official candidate.

The building was secured by police and plainclothes toughs. It was an embarrassing spectacle as the PRI mobilized to defend itself against some of its longtime members, many of them in jackets and ties.

In any event, Cardenas' candidacy was rejected by PRI officials.

"We asked for our rights and they gave us false responses," complained Cardenas, who is a son of the late Lazaro Cardenas, president of Mexico in the 1930s.

Mainline PRI officials tried their best to downplay the Current's efforts. "The self-styled Democratic Current is outside the party," said Jesus Salazar Toledano, a member of the PRI's national executive committee.

It is not yet clear what the Current will do next; so far, its members have professed loyalty to the PRI and it is not clear that they are willing to break with the party. The Current also seems to be having a problem attracting wide public support. Their rallies on Saturday and Monday drew only about 2,000 backers each. In a country where successful plaza politicking is a key measure of strength, the turnouts were considered puny.

Meanwhile, leftist parties grouped in the new Mexican Socialist Party have staged a small but historical coup of their own. Earlier this month, the Socialists held a nationwide primary among three candidates. Anyone could vote. The party said 250,000 did, although some independent observers contend that maybe less than half that number really turned out.

In any event, it was the first such open primary in Mexico's history, perhaps made more remarkable because participants who had never before shown much interest in such polls took part--for instance, remnants of the disbanded Communist Party that now belong to the Socialist coalition.

'Wisdom of the People'

The winning candidate was Heberto Castillo, founder of the Mexican Worker's Party, which is part of the Socialist party. "We are not going to full democracy in Mexico as long as the wisdom of the people, which points to this road (of free elections)), is held in contempt," said Castillo, a professor who in 1968 was a leader in student demonstrations that were violently put down by the government.

Castillo has been trying to lure members of the Democratic Current to join the Socialists in the presidential campaign, even suggesting that he would give way to Cardenas' candidacy. So far, the offer has gone nowhere.

The conservative National Action Party has two announced candidates who are fighting for its nomination. The party's convention will be held in November after state caucuses, and officials have already made it clear that the issue of free elections will make up an important theme in their campaign.

By contrast, the PRI has done little to attract wide interest, much less promote a public contest among its candidates.

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