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Next Step : Mexico's PRI at Crisis Point: Will It Choose Democracy? : Colosio's killing and the Chiapas revolt have shaken the political juggernaut as never before.

March 29, 1994|TRACY WILKINSON and JUANITA DARLING | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

MEXICO CITY — The last time a virtual president was assassinated in Mexico, the course of the country's political history was changed forever.

The year was 1928. A religious fanatic, gaining access by impersonating a cartoonist, shot and killed President-elect Alvaro Obregon. To guarantee the ruling elite's hold on power in the wake of Obregon's murder, strongman Plutarco Elias Calles the next year decreed into existence the vast, all-consuming political party that has governed Mexico ever since.

Last week's assassination of Luis Donaldo Colosio, who as presidential candidate for the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party was the heir apparent to President Carlos Salinas de Gortari, has once again plunged Mexico into the kind of pivotal crisis that could spell long-sought political progress--or political disaster.

Colosio's death in Tijuana at the hands of a young gunman is the most shocking in a series of recent events that have driven wedges into the solidarity of the PRI, as the ruling party is known. They have exposed a vicious internal debate and underscored the failure of the party to adopt truly democratic reforms. Still reeling from a bloody peasant uprising in the southern state of Chiapas, the PRI, and the party-state system through which it has controlled Mexico for 65 years, are under threat.

Even within the party, the voice of dissent has swelled as never before as young, disaffected members are breaking ranks and challenging the hierarchy.

Senior party leaders, struggling to contain the crisis, are emphasizing the party's position as the one Mexican institution that has traditionally guaranteed stability and order.

"In the PRI, there is loyalty," Party Chairman Fernando Ortiz Arana said last week. "There is loyalty to the ideals of democracy and liberty that the party proposes. There is loyalty to the president of the republic, Carlos Salinas de Gortari, as the keeper of national trust and guarantor of rule of law and justice."

After years of lip service to the need for democracy, the trauma of the murder of Colosio may be the catalyst that forces the PRI to change, analysts say. But some observers say it is just as likely that the party, besieged and fearful of facing a disgruntled electorate on a level playing field, may instead close ranks and retrench. The drama will be played out in coming months.

"This is a profound crisis that does not seem to have any alternative for the governing group other than an authoritarian hardening, or an acceptance that Mexico must move toward democracy," said political scientist Luis Javier Garrido, a prominent critic of the PRI.

Calles founded the National Revolutionary Party in 1929, and its name was changed to the current Institutional Revolutionary Party in 1946. From the outset, the party was designed to incorporate--in some cases, co-opt--hundreds of tiny parties and movements that emerged from Mexico's 1910 Revolution.

Waving the banners of social justice and anti-imperialism, the PRI became an organization based on tightly controlled sectors--labor, peasant farmers, bureaucrats and, until the 1940s, the army--where members are kept in line through a paternalistic system of patronage, where corruption flourishes and where decisions are made at the top with little input from the bottom.

Thanks in part to a sophisticated system of what observers call brazen vote fraud, the PRI has won every national election and most regional elections since 1929. The Congress, the judiciary system and most of the press are controlled or at least heavily influenced by the PRI.

Perhaps the single most anti-democratic tendency of the party is the presidential succession. Each president, as he nears the end of his six-year term, names an heir apparent. And each time, that man is elected president.

The killing of Colosio, then, was not just the elimination of a candidate but the murder of the man everyone expected to be the next president.

Much of Mexico for many years readily accepted the system, sacrificing participatory democracy for a semblance of stability and peace. But that part of the equation--stability and peace--seemed to dissolve this year when rebels of the Zapatista National Liberation Army seized a string of towns in Chiapas, demanding justice and social equity for some of Mexico's most impoverished people.

Suddenly, the myths of a "modern Mexico"--the myths that Salinas used to catapult Mexico into partnership with the United States and Canada in the world's largest trading bloc--were dashed. The credibility of Salinas, and the PRI, were called into question, deepening an already festering crisis caused by opposition in many circles to Salinas' free-market economic policies and the persistent cry for democracy.

Now, say analysts, simple reform may not be enough.

A New Chorus for Change

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