MEXICO CITY — There were shouts of "traitor!" There were intrigues, power plays, bitter recriminations and resignations--offered and rejected.
Finally, on Sunday, the political party that has given voice to Mexico's millions of leftists for more than a decade emerged from three cathartic days of self-criticism committed to the crucial and complex task of reinventing itself.
Yet, after suffering its worst election defeat since the party's dour, populist leader Cuauhtemoc Cardenas split from the ruling party to found it 11 years ago, the Democratic Revolution Party, or PRD, acknowledged that it remains a party mired in internal conflict and crisis.
At the core of the PRD's weekend summit was how it and the political left can survive on Mexico's radically new political landscape, reshaped when center-right opposition leader Vicente Fox and his National Action Party swept the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party from power, ending 71 years of continuous rule.
At stake in the PRD's promise to reform, modernize and restore its standing with a new Mexico is more than the legacy of a party that lost hundreds of its members to political assassinations during a single decade.
At stake is Mexico's future political stability.
With 30 million to 40 million of Mexico's 100 million people living in poverty and a center-right party set to take power, many analysts and even PRD ideologues say frustration and nationalism easily could pour into the streets in the years ahead if there is no political party to manage them.
"It's very important that the poorer sectors of society find a political channel for expression," said Jean Francois Prud'homme, a Colegio de Mexico professor who has studied the Mexican left for nearly two decades.
If they don't, "it can lead to destabilization of the political system, social unrest and even armed conflict."
Added Ricardo Pascoe, a senior PRD member at the weekend National Council summit: "The poor of Mexico will only be attended to by the PRD." And without the party, he added, "there's always the way of arms. . . . If it weren't for the presence of the PRD, this country could easily be in civil war."
But the stated challenge in the months ahead--"to reconstruct our party from top to bottom" and "rebuild bridges" to a Mexican society that eclipsed it--is nothing short of enormous.
Not only was Cardenas a distant third in his third consecutive failed presidential bid on July 2, but his party lost more than half its 125 seats in the lower house, the Chamber of Deputies. It fell more than 600,000 votes short of its 1997 tally of 7.5 million. And now it's broke, owing millions of dollars in campaign debts.
Cardenas himself appeared unrepentant in a speech opening the weekend session. He acknowledged "internal conflicts," structural flaws and the need to build new bridges to social and political groups.
But the son of a fiercely nationalistic former Mexican president and self-styled child of the Mexican Revolution assumed no personal blame for the disaster at the polls. In fact, he declared, "We didn't win the election, of course, but we are not defeated, nor should we feel defeated."
Party President Amalia Garcia was more pointed in her assessment. Although she, and all others who spoke at the council summit, stopped short of taking Cardenas to task, her opening speech stressed that her party leadership spends 85% of its time resolving internal disputes that have helped separate the party from the people.
A document signed by Garcia and other key party members Saturday spoke poignantly of the party's "errors and deficiencies" in an election that "clearly revealed the magnitude of our divorce with society."
"We divorced ourselves from the voters because we use an ambiguous discourse, sometimes repetitive and tiring . . . and this divorce has kept us from seeing the changes that have taken place in society."
Many analysts outside the party blame Cardenas for that discourse and estrangement. And his future role in the PRD and the party's reinvention, they say, are key to whether the PRD becomes a modern leftist force or fractures into obscurity.
"One of the most serious problems of the PRD is what are they going to do with Cuauhtemoc," political analyst Sergio Aguayo said. "He reacts against the technocrats because he wants to capture the heritage of the Mexican Revolution, the heritage of his father."
But the majority of Mexicans are embracing those technocrats and their technology, while rejecting Cardenas' traditional nationalistic, anti-American themes. Aguayo said Cardenas "puts the PRD in a historical trap. Cuauhtemoc refuses to accept the most basic fact: The revolution is dead.
"The social base of the left needs a modern party. We are longing for a modern left. Either the PRD adapts, or we're going to have new groups and new parties."