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NEXT STEP : Can Zedillo Keep the PRI From . . . : FALLING APART? : The president's reforms threaten the way Mexico's ruling party does business.


GUANAJUATO, Mexico — Huddled on the patio of a colonial hacienda, half a dozen young, professional campaign workers did a post-mortem over tequila and cigarettes. For three months, they had tirelessly organized rallies, worked the phones and blanketed the state of Guanajuato with campaign posters for the party that has ruled Mexico for six decades.

They are among the professionals who have powered the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, machine to victory after victory in Mexico. They are the heirs to the spoils that inevitably have come with PRI power and PRI victory. But now, as they assessed the ruling party's most devastating defeat in 66 years, they faced a personal future that may well be as bleak as their party's.

The day before, in a critical vote in this pivotal political year for Mexico and the PRI, the world's longest-ruling party, the voters of the city and state of Guanajuato had rejected their gubernatorial candidate, Ignacio (Nacho) Vazquez Torres, by an overwhelming 2-1 margin. And in the wake of that defeat, the young professionals were disappointed and hurt. But mainly, they felt betrayed--not just by the voters, but by the national leaders of their own party.

"How can they take this so lightly?" one asked angrily, after learning that the nation's Yale-educated president, Ernesto Zedillo, whose election they had worked for, actually had telephoned the opposition candidate to congratulate him on his victory.

"Because they never stayed up all night hanging campaign posters," the PRI activist continued. "While they were off studying at Harvard and Yale, people like Nacho were out in the trenches campaigning--something they know nothing about."

As those around the table nodded, another loyalist added a bitter bottom line that bodes ill for the party that has been synonymous with the state.

"And what does this say to us? I want to be a federal deputy. But when my time comes, will these scummy technocrats do the same thing to me that they did to Nacho?"

Reflected in the disillusionment of these up-and-coming politicians, who with others elsewhere form the inner core of a party clearly in crisis, is nothing less than the basic question: Can the PRI survive the clean elections and multi-party democracy that Zedillo has promised?

To fulfill that pledge, Zedillo is trying to separate the presidency from the party in an operation as delicate as parting Siamese twins.

At stake for the PRI this year are governorships, state legislatures or mayoral seats in nearly a fifth of Mexico's 31 states. Already, the party has lost badly in Guanajuato and Jalisco. A narrow win by an old guard PRI hard-liner last week in Yucatan is being sullied by stiff legal challenges by the opposition, which charges that the PRI won through fraud and coercion, time-honored electoral traditions in Mexico.

In the months ahead, the PRI faces ballot challenges in the states of Oaxaca, Michoacan, Puebla, Durango and Baja California, where the governor's seat is up for grabs.

And in the years leading up to presidential elections in the year 2000, the PRI will face election tests that raise the prospect of the PRI losing--for the first time--the presidency, the authoritarian power and the promise of patronage that has allowed the party to rule for six decades.

For most of that time, a PRI nomination for political office was tantamount to election.

The guarantee of a political job in government was the hueso , the bone, that went to party stalwarts for getting out the vote and maintaining party discipline: working hard and waiting patiently until, as the party worker in Guanajuato put it, their turn came.

Last week's resounding defeat in Guanajuato--the fourth governor's mansion the PRI has lost in six years--undeniably underscored how much those rules have changed. And, arguably, the change was just as evident in the southern state of Yucatan.

"Even if the PRI sustains the victory in Yucatan, sophisticated young politicians recognize that it barely squeaked by," historian Roderic Camp said.

In last week's results, officially ratified by the election commissions in both states Sunday night, is a critical message, he added: "Winning and losing has become part of the game for what had formerly been the dominant party."

He predicted that the revolutionary transformation of Mexican politics into a risk-taking business will have a tremendous impact on the type of people attracted to public life and their motives.

"In the future, there will be no guarantees," said Camp, a veteran analyst of Mexican politics at Tulane University. "People will have to choose a party they believe in and go with that party, win or lose."

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