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Mexico's Top Party Pledges Overhaul

Reform: Long-ruling PRI vows to foster internal democracy, battle corruption. Despite fierce debates at assembly, emotional delegates support President Zedillo.


MEXICO CITY — Ending a three-day gathering marked by rare open rebellion and debate, Mexico's ruling party passed hundreds of sweeping regulations Sunday to combat internal corruption, compete in fairer elections and open itself to democracy as never before.

The Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, capped its landmark assembly to reform itself with a flourish of pomp and promises, approving fundamental changes in its authoritarian structure, ideology and identity--and thus rejecting an era of technocratic leaders in favor of its socialist roots.

Specifically, the nearly 4,000 delegates from Mexico's 30 states and the capital endorsed "revolutionary nationalism" as the party's most basic principle while rejecting privatization and other policies of "social liberalism" espoused by Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo.

But the delegates, chanting "Zedillo, Zedillo, Zedillo," later roared their support in a dozen standing ovations that closed ranks around the president as the Yale-educated economist clearly reaffirmed his party loyalty and endorsed the reforms in a closing speech before the assembly Sunday afternoon.

Among the measures that came out of the assembly's fiercest public debate, in which party members rose up against their leadership Saturday night, are new requirements for future PRI presidential candidates--qualifications that neither Zedillo nor any of Mexico's previous four presidents would have met.

The vote came after several delegates shouted "Block the technocrats" and delivered emotionally charged speeches--a radical departure from the party's 16 previous, largely stage-managed conventions.

All PRI candidates for high office will now be required to have been elected to public office and to have at least 10 years of party membership. Zedillo and his most recent technocratic predecessors, such as the Harvard-educated Carlos Salinas de Gortari, were longtime party members who had served in Cabinet posts. But none had won an election before their presidential bids.

Analysts and party members said the new guidelines are a clear signal that the PRI, which has controlled Mexico and its political power for the last 67 years but which lost several important state elections last year, is trying to return to its traditional grass roots of nationalist politics. The internal conflicts at the assembly, they added, were natural as the party enters what Zedillo on Sunday praised as "a new era of PRI democracy."

"As in no other national assembly," Zedillo noted, "the [party] line was that there was no line."

But the analysts also concluded that the weekend's uncommon public disagreements--largely between PRI progressives and conservative hard-liners--also underscored the challenges the party faces as it tries to change its image and ideology before key state, local and national legislative elections next year.

"The PRI is changing, and it must change. If they don't do it now, there are going to be very, very big problems in the future," said an international observer--one of several dozen who attended the session--who asked not to be named.

During another contentious Saturday session, the leader of the party's progressive Democracy 2000 faction, Ramiro de la Rosa, was silenced and dragged from the auditorium after he called former President Salinas a "thief and murderer" who was responsible for the 1994 assassination of PRI presidential candidate Luis Donaldo Colosio--a man who was idolized throughout the weekend event.

The assembly then rejected a move by De la Rosa's group to expel the former president from the party. Salinas, who has denied such allegations in the past, has been in self-exile since soon after his elder brother, Raul Salinas de Gortari, was arrested last year. The PRI expelled Raul Salinas after he was jailed in February 1995 on charges of illicit enrichment and of masterminding the 1994 political assassination of the PRI's second-ranking official.

In his speech at Sunday's closing ceremony, Zedillo stressed that the party's new internal reforms are essential in order to create "a new political stability where corruption and impunity have no place." A recent poll by The Times and Mexico City's Reforma newspaper indicated that many Mexicans believe their politicians are corrupt.

Some of the measures approved over the weekend opened up the PRI's traditionally closed process of selecting candidates. Others were designed to separate the party from the levers and finances of government power.

Even some of the party's youngest and most progressive delegates said they agreed that the assembly had been a major step toward internal PRI democracy.

"Certainly, these are just words and formalities, and there are two important elements here: the formalities and the actual practice," said delegate Keika Franca, a lawyer and self-described reformer from the state of Veracruz.

"But this starts the process of changing people's way of thinking. It's a very important step. Now it's up to us, the delegates, to go back to our cities and villages and begin making these words a reality."

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