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An Authoritarian Party Reinvents Itself Through Democracy

May 30, 1999|David Ayon | David Ayon teaches U.S. and Mexican politics at Loyola Marymount and is working on a book about ethnic groups and foreign policy

Leaders of Mexico's traditionally authoritarian ruling party took a bold step this month to extend their world-record grip on power: They scheduled an election. But the country's first-ever national presidential primary is much more than a way for the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) to nominate its standard bearer for the 2000 elections.

Given its falling popularity and declining reputation, the PRI's move was tantamount to pulling a rabbit out of a hat. Neither challengers within the party nor opponents in competing parties appear to grasp what they are now up against.

It would be hard to imagine a better strategy for reinventing the PRI. The presidential primary, set for November, is a blueprint for reorganizing the party, launching campaigns to hold onto Mexico's presidency and Senate, mounting strong bids to recover control of the lower house of Congress and possibly the mayoralty of Mexico City. It will even attract piles of extra party-building cash.

Attention has focused on whether the primary vote really marks a break with the custom of Mexico's sitting president appointing his successor. Critics complain that President Ernesto Zedillo is still using the dedazo, in the form of a primary, to anoint his chosen but unacknowledged heir. While it is certainly true that the primary's rules favor Zedillo's reputed favorite, former Interior Minister Francisco Labastida, they also, more importantly, set the stage for a renewed PRI juggernaut in 2000 and beyond.

In one sense, the PRI is not holding a superprimary, with the total popular vote determining the winner. Rather, there will be 300 simultaneous primaries, one in each of Mexico's 300 congressional districts, and the nominee will be the winner of the most districts. What has passed unnoticed in the Mexican press is that this scheme has made national polling of the relative strengths of PRI candidates irrelevant. What matters most now is how the aspirants compare district by district. Put another way, a candidate's breadth of support across Mexico, rather than in any one district, state or region, will count the most. At the same time, this primary format devalues TV ads and campaigning exclusively aimed at national audiences, while benefiting the candidate best organized on the ground nationally.

A successful campaign, then, will have to be organized district by district. Winning the nomination will require individually assessing every jurisdiction, allocating resources to districts other than safe ones, mounting superior efforts in all winnable districts and distracting opponents by tying them down in their own bailiwicks as much as possible. It's safe to say that PRI candidates and their campaigns have not had much experience doing this.

But Labastida, who resigned from Zedillo's Cabinet the day after the primary rules were adopted, enjoys an advantage over his main opponent, Roberto Madrazo, governor of the state of Tabasco and leader in the polls. As secretary of gobernacion, misleadingly translated as "interior," Labastida oversaw national political intelligence and control, including the Zedillo administration's relations with all parties, the congress and governors. As such, he is well positioned to line up support from PRI elected and appointed officials and party leaders everywhere, as well as from members of the business and labor elites. His successor at gobernacion, his Cabinet friends and presumably Zedillo himself will help Labastida retain and expand his support across the country.

One way that top national leaders maintain party discipline even as open competition is introduced into the party's method of selecting gubernatorial candidates and its presidential candidate is through their continuing control of access to legislative positions. All Mexico's 500 congressional representatives and three-quarters of its 128 senators will be termed out in 2000. While contests for the party's executive positions are increasingly candidate-driven, the choice of who gets to run for legislative seats remains in the hands of party leaders. Thus a duality is emerging within the PRI. A handful of exceptional personalities compete for the party's top nominations, while rivals for legislative jobs must secure the blessing of party leaders. This system preserves the national clout of the PRI's top leaders even as it selects the party's presidential nominee at the district level.

But the real genius of the PRI's primary scheme is how it addresses a range of party problems and challenges not only in the 2000 elections but also beyond them. Among the many troubles plaguing the PRI have been its disorganization in the many states and counties controlled by the opposition, the decline of its traditional corporatist instruments of party membership and manipulation and the steady loss of its formerly huge financial advantage due to the introduction of mandatory public financing and regulation of campaigns.

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