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NEWS ANALYSIS : Scope of PRI Win in Mexico a Blow to Opposition Parties


MEXICO CITY — A resounding ruling party victory in an election billed as the most hotly contested poll in six decades has stunned the opposition and clouded the future of multi-party politics in this country.

The opposition parties, which had expected a good showing in the presidential vote and a strong representation in the next legislature, were devastated by the returns that continued to roll in Wednesday.

Although it seems to have won the presidency with its lowest percentage of the vote in modern history, the governing Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) appeared to have not only almost doubled the tally of its nearest competitor in the top race but also swept the Senate contests and taken 278 of the 300 districts in the lower house.

All three major parties will receive seats in both houses based on a system of proportional representation.

But the opposition's apparent failure to win more races outright left many analysts worried that the overwhelming PRI triumph will undermine voter confidence in partisan politics as a means for change, increasing the likelihood of violence among dissidents.

"Six years of clamoring for change have done nothing to affect the political system," said writer and social critic Homero Aridjis.

The major leftist party, the Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD), has announced plans for the traditional post-election opposition response: marches and demonstrations protesting fraud.

But the conservative National Action Party (PAN)--which has blocked its share of international bridges and highways in the aftermath of votes--virtually conceded defeat this time.

In the coming months, analysts expect both opposition parties to re-evaluate their positions in the national political process.

"The entire political system has failed to resolve the crisis," said David Castro Ruiz, a PRI activist in Chihuahua, a state governed by the PAN. "There must be a series of changes, not just in the PRI, but in all the parties."

These elections generally had been expected to mark the beginning of a true multi-party political system in Mexico. This country has a long history of nominal opposition parties but none had ever been considered a realistic alternative to the PRI monopoly on government.

That was supposed to change this year.

All but the most extreme elements of the fractious left had been united under the banner of the PRD.

Their candidate, Cuauhtemoc Cardenas, son of this nation's most revered 20th-Century president, was expected to have long coattails, carrying into the Congress candidates who would express the poor, rural South's disenchantment with the radical free-market reforms of the past decade. The campaign appeared to be laying the groundwork for a Mexican version of a social democratic party.

The PAN entered the race in the strongest position of its 55-year history, with three state governorships and a glib, colorful litigator as its standard-bearer.

Cigar-smoking Diego Fernandez de Cevallos moved into first place in many polls after he outshone his stodgy rivals in Mexico's first televised presidential candidates' debate. PRI activists in PAN-governed states even began to speak of alternancia , the idea of political parties taking turns in power.

Against these two apparently strong contenders, a PRI shocked by the March 23 assassination of its chosen candidate was forced to run a substitute whose selection had deeply divided the ruling party.

This was the opposition's best shot at the presidency.

It missed.

Both the PAN and the PRD must now regroup, analysts said.

But the heaviest burden for change will fall on the PRD.

"This is going to lead the PRD to an enormous amount of soul-searching," said political analyst Denise Dresser. "There will be a tremendous questioning of Cuauhtemoc Cardenas' leadership."

Cardenas, widely believed to have been cheated out of the presidency by vote fraud six years ago, has refused to compromise or negotiate with the government in any election since. As a result, while the PAN has made deals that gave the party the first opposition governorships of this century, the PRD has been able to defend victories in only a few town halls.

Many analysts expect a coup within the PRD that will oust Cardenas. The question would then become whether the PRD can survive without his moral leadership. "Is it a real party or a following of yet another caudillo (political boss) in Mexican history?" Dresser asked.

If the PRD falls apart, it will leave the 17% of Mexicans who voted for Cardenas without a political voice, a prospect that deeply worries many Mexicans.

"This is a mortal blow for Cuauhtemoc Cardenas, the PRD and the Mexican left," said Aridjis. "Mexico has a courtesan left that is close to the government, and a real left of students, workers and peasants. This could provoke a major crisis that will separate them and lead to violence."

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