MEXICO CITY — Mexico's former ruling party, known universally as the PRI, already has an unofficial campaign slogan for the 2006 presidential election: We know how to get things done.
On Wednesday, Roberto Madrazo, the party's presumed candidate, finally got his own job done.
He stepped down as head of the Institutional Revolutionary Party to campaign for president and turned the office over to Mariano Palacios Alcocer, who had served as head of the PRI until 1999, when he resigned to become President Ernesto Zedillo's labor secretary.
One of Madrazo's obstacles had been PRI general secretary Elba Ester Gordillo, who has alleged that he was stealing the party presidency from her. But on Wednesday, nearly 1,000 members of the PRI's national council approved Palacios by voice vote.
Gordillo, who controls Mexico's 1-million-plus teachers union, was by party rules supposed to succeed Madrazo as the PRI's national president.
But for the last two years, Madrazo has been trying to dump Gordillo, who was once described by a Washington pundit as "Mexico's Jimmy Hoffa" for her tight control over the nation's most influential union.
Gordillo's alleged offense is disloyalty. She helped Madrazo win the party presidency in 2002 in a close contest. In exchange for her support, Madrazo landed Gordillo a job as PRI general secretary, the party's No. 2 position.
Their falling out began in fall 2003, only months after Gordillo won a seat in Mexico's lower house. She was accused of looking favorably on a fiscal package being pushed by President Vicente Fox, the man who broke PRI's 71-year grip on power.
The PRI lost the presidency for the first time in 2000 to Fox's National Action Party, and Madrazo has since been plotting his party's return to power.
Madrazo and the PRI have spent the last five years blocking Fox's proposed economic and institutional changes, creating an general impression of him among voters as an honest but ineffective president. Madrazo is counting on that impression to push voters back to the PRI, which wants to be remembered for building schools, roads and bridges rather than for rigging elections, allegedly protecting drug dealers and eliminating dissenters.
So far, the strategy does not seem to be working. Madrazo and the PRI, according to polls, are lagging far behind former Mexico City Mayor Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, the presumed candidate of the left-of-center Democratic Revolution Party. Fox is not running again because of term limits.
Last year, Gordillo resigned her position in the lower house, the Chamber of Deputies, after being stripped of her party leadership duties there. At the time she accused the PRI of putting its desire to reclaim the presidency ahead of needed changes.
"I dreamed of putting forward the reforms ... that our country urgently needs," she said at the time. "But my dreams clashed with the interests of a group for whom the future begins and ends in 2006."
Health problems prompted Gordillo to drop out of sight in 2004, but she returned this year with a vengeance.
Her supporters in the teachers union have registered a new party, threatening to leave the PRI if Gordillo was denied the presidency. And in August, a federal electoral court ruled that Gordillo was entitled to the top PRI job, although it was unclear whether the ruling could or would be enforced.
For his part, Madrazo said in July that Gordillo would be free to take over the party presidency, but that her health troubles might cause a delay.
Then on Monday, Gordillo told reporters: "Roberto Madrazo suggested that there is no difference between us. Once again, he is lying."
Madrazo, who just missed being the 2000 presidential nominee, appears unwilling to risk having Gordillo take over the party as it entered the nominating season. He is credited with helping the PRI win back a substantial number of lower house seats in the 2003 elections.
But to be president, he must first win the unified support of his party. Loyal PRI members were happy about Wednesday's outcome.
Gordillo "didn't even show up for this," said Miguel Angel Jaime. "She wanted to be party president by telegram. 'Congratulations, you're the new president.' But she was working with the PAN, and out having her people form a new party.
"How could you have someone like that be the leader. She's a mercenary."
Gordillo could not be reached for comment late Wednesday.
Madrazo has more obstacles ahead. Arturo Montiel, who is finishing his term this month as the governor of Mexico state, has already spent more than $7 million in his campaign to win the party's nomination this fall, according to estimates by the newspaper El Universal.