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Mexico's Ousted PRI Is Limping Into a Make-or-Break Period

Latin America: The odds against a party comeback, or even survival, are considered huge.


MEXICO CITY — Nearly five months after Mexico's ruling party was voted out of power, its formerly bustling headquarters here bears the moribund feel of a boomtown gone bust.

Its plaza, once decked with giant campaign banners, is bare and nearly deserted, thanks to staff layoffs and a dwindling flow of visitors seeking party largess. Inside the stark office buildings, leaders of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, face a political landscape as gloomy.

On Friday, the party will hand power to the nation's first opposition president in modern times: Vicente Fox of the center-right National Action Party. Then the PRI will be forced to figure out how to survive out of power for the first time in 71 years.

Circumstances facing a PRI comeback are daunting: broad public disenchantment, huge debts, a looming leadership crisis and no obvious rescuer in the wings. Some analysts say the coming internal tussle could forever rupture a party that built contemporary Mexico but ended up out of step with its citizens.

The decisions that await are fundamental. Up for discussion will be everything from renaming the PRI and defining its opposition role to making the party appealing to young people and middle-class city dwellers.

Those concerns--as well as the search for a new leader--are on hold until President Ernesto Zedillo departs this week. After that, the gloves are likely to come off.

"We're going to see a lot of noise and a lot of disorder and a lot of turbulence inside the PRI," said Jose Antonio Crespo, a political scientist and expert on the party. "It also won't surprise me that in the same months we start to see the collapse of the PRI."

The party has suffered fissures before, and fresh ones are almost inevitable now. The question is how deep they go. Spats over who will be the new party leader could push reformers to break away from the party, Crespo said, abandoning a marginalized PRI to its old-guard "dinosaurs." Or, he said, the party could revive by selecting a leader "with enough weight and recognition inside the PRI to keep unity, but at the same time who can convince citizens that he represents a completely new PRI."

"That won't be easy," he added.

PRI officials acknowledge that the party faces challenges dwarfing all others since it was formed in 1929 to unite rival political bosses.

"The PRI has to transform itself into a real alternative for power and fight to get back," said party President Dulce Maria Sauri, who offered to quit after the July 2 electoral defeat but was kept on at least until Zedillo leaves. "There's no way to turn around and say, 'How was this done before?' "

Wrangling among factions, whose differences were easier to gloss over while the party ruled, is more likely because the job of picking a party leader is wholly unfamiliar to members. In years past, the PRI chief was named by the president, who treated the government and party as mere extensions of each other. Party presidential candidate Francisco Labastida is not expected to play much of a role.

"For the very first time the party will decide for itself. This will make or break the PRI," said Delal Baer, a Mexico expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

Most often mentioned as possible party chief are Roberto Madrazo, the maverick governor of Tabasco state who lost to Labastida last year in the PRI's first presidential primary, and Diodoro Carrasco, a Zedillo ally and outgoing interior minister.

Both have liabilities. Madrazo, who has depicted himself as a populist alternative to what U.S. politicians would call "Beltway politics," was weakened by a gubernatorial election in his home state last month. Madrazo's chosen successor won, but the narrow victory was marred by squabbling within the PRI and charges of vote fraud by the left-leaning opposition.

Madrazo formally launched his bid for party chief Saturday with a rally in Mexico City.

Carrasco is hobbled by his ties to Zedillo and the governing technocrats who are blamed by hard-liners for the PRI's electoral setback.

Also mentioned are Veracruz Gov. Miguel Aleman, whose father was president from 1946 to 1952; Genaro Borrego, a reformist senator and former party president; and Chihuahua Gov. Patricio Martinez, admired for recapturing the state in 1998 from Fox's party. But the field remains wide open.

The PRI has little time to find a strong leader before the run-up to midterm congressional elections in 2003, said Federico Estevez, a political scientist at the Autonomous Technological Institute of Mexico.

"This is a party that for good or ill deposits its trust in a sure leader and entrusts them their fate," Estevez said. "You don't want a caretaker."

The leadership quest is no less a search for a future. Some, such as Borrego, have advocated an overhaul that essentially would create a new party. On the other end are those who say the PRI need only return to its roots in peasant and mass organizations.

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