MEXICO CITY — The world's longest-ruling party agreed Monday to an open primary election to choose its nominee for the 2000 presidential race, breaking a 70-year tradition of the incumbent president anointing his successor.
In choosing to hold a primary ballot, the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, embraced a dramatic and risky transition to internal democracy after decades of back-room decision-making by a small elite.
The primary, scheduled for Nov. 7, will be open to all Mexicans who have electoral identity documents, not just party members, so millions of voters could participate. Would-be candidates must declare their intentions by July 15.
Roderic Ai Camp, a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College and an expert on Mexican presidential successions, said of Monday's decision: "I think it's extraordinarily significant. It's a dramatic announcement that confounds some of the critics, because most people thought if there was any change at all, it would be a more limited version."
A total of 307 members of the National Political Council of the PRI voted overwhelmingly for the primary, against just 21 who wanted a party convention to choose the nominee for the July 2000 election.
The vote was a victory for President Ernesto Zedillo on the eve of his departure for a three-day visit to California. Zedillo took on hard-liners within the PRI and refused to exercise the traditional dedazo, or selection of his successor, instead calling for a more democratic process.
The party council went on to debate rules concerning spending limits and publicity, potentially thorny points that have caused tensions among the half-dozen hopefuls.
Political analysts said the centrist PRI's internal opening could improve its chances of winning yet another six-year term in 2000, given its success in several state elections where primaries were held over the last year. Furthermore, they said, it could help the PRI avoid splits like those that occurred in 1988 and 1994, when would-be candidates walked out on the party after being denied the nomination.
"This is a huge change," political scientist Federico Estevez said. "In terms of presidential politics in Mexico, this is a radical shift in the organization of elections. And instead of having gone to a brokered convention manipulated by the leadership, they went the whole distance."
The council meeting brought together leaders of state power blocs, labor, peasants and the many other social sectors that make up the PRI, which is known less for a clear ideology than for its skill at maintaining and using political power.
Jose Antonio Gonzalez Fernandez, the party president who led weeks of intense debate over the nomination process, recalled that the PRI was founded in 1929 by Gen. Plutarco Elias Calles to pull the country from the chaos that followed the 1910-17 Mexican Revolution.
The party was not born to contend for political victories, but "as an institutional mechanism to transfer power peacefully in a context where governments had changed only by force or violence in the revolution."
In an unusually frank admission of the president's past role, Gonzalez said: "For years, the defining of the presidential succession was based without doubt on the opinion of the president."
The PRI, long accused by its foes of stealing elections through vote fraud, lost its congressional majority for the first time in 1997 under a new independent electoral system. Polls suggest that opposition parties have a realistic chance of defeating the PRI in the 2000 presidential vote, a reality that encouraged the ruling party to look inward.
Gonzalez told the delegates that, as the end of the century approaches, "The PRI is obliged to live through its own democratic transition. Today we have no other option: Democracy is in the town squares, in the streets, in the countryside and in the city.
"These are new times in Mexico," Gonzalez declared. "Times of democracy and openness. With your vote, today a new PRI is born."
He said an open primary will also be held to select the nominee for mayor of Mexico City, a post the PRI lost in 1997 to Cuauhtemoc Cardenas. He is leader of the left-wing Democratic Revolution Party, or PRD, and is its likely presidential nominee. On the right, and leading most polls, is Guanajuato state Gov. Vicente Fox.
The main contenders for the PRI nomination are Interior Minister Francisco Labastida, an economist who supports Zedillo's strict free-market policies; two old-style party governors, Roberto Madrazo of Tabasco and Manuel Bartlett of Puebla; and moderate Veracruz Gov. Miguel Aleman, son of a former president and a possible compromise candidate.
"This improves the PRI's chances [in 2000], without question," said Claremont's Camp. "It shows that the PRI can sustain and revive itself and be victorious if it will just listen to its rank-and-file members."