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PRI Seeks New Direction to Make Up for Lost Ground

Mexico: At national assembly, ex-ruling party focuses on shedding its old-boy image. Setbacks at polls offer a reality check, analysts say.

November 17, 2001|JAMES F. SMITH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MEXICO CITY — Mexico's once-dominant political party today kicks off its first national assembly since losing the presidency last year, hoping to rebound from its trouncing by Vicente Fox.

At issue in the four-day gathering of 11,700 delegates is whether the Institutional Revolutionary Party will find a new direction.

The PRI, as the party is known, dominated Mexican politics from its founding in 1929 until Fox's victory in July 2000. The party presided over healthy national growth and economic development through the 1960s but thereafter became increasingly tainted by corruption and the decay of public institutions.

In its early years, the PRI controlled not only the presidency but also every level of government and politics. It never even lost a governor's race until 1989, in Baja California. But its erosion has been steady since then. Other parties rode on Fox's coattails to deal the PRI a series of further defeats, including gubernatorial losses in the southern states of Chiapas and Yucatan.

On Sunday, the PRI candidate for the governorship of Michoacan state lost to Lazaro Cardenas of the left-of-center Democratic Revolution Party, or PRD. Cardenas is the grandson of a famed PRI president. His father, Cuauhtemoc Cardenas, split from the PRI in 1987 to form the PRD.

With the loss of Michoacan, the PRI controls just 17 of Mexico's 31 states, and it no longer governs the important federal district of Mexico City.

Jose Antonio Crespo, a political scientist who watches the PRI closely, said the timing of the Michoacan defeat may be useful for the party as it meets.

"It will let it locate itself more firmly in reality so that it debates seriously the changes that the party needs," Crespo wrote in a column Thursday in the Mexico City daily Universal. He noted that the party has been prone to self-delusion in the past, ignoring signs of its decline.

Recent gains in vote totals, if not actual victories, in a series of municipal elections have encouraged some PRI leaders to boast that the party is on the road to recovery. The PRI still has more members of the lower house and the Senate than any other party, they point out.

Columnist Sergio Sarmiento said he expects the PRI to emerge from the assembly with a shift toward the left, and away from the free-market technocracy that defined the PRI under Presidents Miguel de la Madrid, Carlos Salinas de Gortari and Ernesto Zedillo.

The 18th assembly in the PRI's history is designed to infuse the party with new blood and new ideas--and to avoid a draining leadership battle, a common PRI pitfall in the past. The sessions are being held in five cities, with each site tackling certain themes.

The delegates were elected in municipal and then state assemblies, a mechanism designed to ensure grass-roots participation and a lesser role for the once-powerful peasant and union sectors. Unusually, the rules stipulate that 30% of the 11,700 delegates be younger than 30, and 50% must be women. That is an effort to counter the PRI's image as an old-boy, back-room organization.

Political analysts agree that it is critical for Mexico to have a functioning political opposition, in part so that Fox, of the National Action Party, is held accountable--and also so that he can negotiate key reforms with a coherent foe in the Congress.

PRI Secretary-General Rodolfo Echeverria told reporters in Washington last month that the presidential defeat forced the party "to examine itself closely [and] thoroughly review its mistakes, which were not few."

George W. Grayson, a longtime Mexico analyst who teaches at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Va., wrote in a report for the Center for Strategic and International Studies that Fox's victory "converted the PRI into a rudderless boat."

But he added that partly thanks to Fox's perceived rocky start, the PRI has recovered from its 37% of the presidential vote to win an average 42% in the post-July 2 ballots.

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