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Parties Turn Attention to Internal Problems, Prepare for State Elections : Ruling PRI, Leftist Foes Regrouping in Mexico

Times Staff Writer

Dismount and regroup: Those are the marching orders for both the besieged ruling party and its newly powerful leftist opposition after Mexico’s longest and most heated presidential contest.

Since Sept. 9, when the congress ratified Carlos Salinas de Gortari’s election as the nation’s president, his Institutional Revolutionary Party and the opposition National Democratic Front each have turned their attention to internal problems, seeking to strengthen their camps for continued battle against each other.

For the PRI, as the ruling party is universally known, the challenge is to reform a party grown complacent through nearly 60 years of governing. Observers and party members say that while working to calm tensions between old-school politicians, dubbed “dinosaurs,” and the younger technocrats in its ranks, the PRI must revamp its image and its operating methods to regain support lost in the July 6 presidential election.

Mass Movement

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For its part, say the observers, the Democratic Front must turn a mass political movement and an alliance of diverse parties into a unified organization able to convert the unanticipated popularity of its leader, Cuauhtemoc Cardenas, into future electoral victories.

The two groups are under the pressure of a series of important state elections in the next three months, and the obstacles for each are immense.

“The two sides have many problems ahead of them,” said Rafael Segovia, academic coordinator of the postgraduate Colegio de Mexico and an expert on the PRI.

“It is always more difficult to be in the government than in the opposition, but the chances of uniting the left seem impossible,” Segovia said. “The PRI, on the other hand, has the so-called monopoly on legitimate violence . . . television . . . and (state) resources. But a party is not only its resources. It is an image and the presentation of a program.”

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Stunning Blow

Salinas’ victory, with 50.74% of the vote, was history’s lowest for a PRI presidential candidate and was considered a stunning blow for the ruling party. Previously, no PRI president had admitted to winning less than 70% of the vote, and elections served primarily to legitimize a candidate hand-picked by the incumbent. This time the PRI also conceded nearly half of the Chamber of Deputies and, for the first time, four seats in the Senate.

Despite the PRI’s recognized losses, both the Democratic Front and the rightist National Action Party assert that the election was fraudulent. Cardenas’ backers claim that he won. Official results placed him second, with 31.06% of the vote, ahead of the National Action Party.

The vote has been interpreted as a rejection of the PRI’s economic policies, which have resulted in a 50% erosion of worker salaries and of the party’s lock on power.

Now, with Salinas, a 40-year-old Harvard-trained economist, a younger generation of technocrats is taking over the party, saying that their political survival depends on change. The PRI must improve its selection of candidates for state and local elections, listen to the demands of its members and create a strong party structure independent of the government, they say. They add that they are committed to free and fair elections.

Talk With Opposition

Further, PRI officials say, the party must recognize the new balance of political forces in the country and negotiate with the opposition, something it has never had to do before.

“Only by recognizing the new requirements of the political reality will we be in a condition to adapt our strategy and strengthen our organization,” Manuel Camacho Solis, the PRI’s new secretary general, said in a recent speech to party members. Camacho, who is Salinas’ right-hand official, called for “fundamental changes . . . that abandon bureaucratism, arrogance, corruption.”

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Old-time party leaders, however, have publicly disagreed. Several oppose negotiations with the opposition and believe, for example, that during negotiations to certify the new Chamber of Deputies, the technocrats gave away seats that the opposition did not really win.

Some observers say they doubt the PRI will democratize its own party, let alone give up the perks that it has enjoyed as the party in power. Besides the unions, the PRI government runs or controls television and much of the print media. The PRI reportedly uses state funds and public employees for party benefit.

The party has been a top-down organization, with decision-making and candidate selection dictated by the leadership. Some observers said they are skeptical of the PRI’s ability to change.

“To reform a party in power is practically impossible. Parties are reformed in the opposition, not in power,” Segovia said. “The PRI is a party that exists to support the president and the government. After 60 years of governing, it is difficult to create something from the base when the cupola already exists. What are you going to do--rebuild the base of the pyramid and leave the vertex floating in the air?”

PRI reformers are pushing for a party assembly to name new leaders before the Dec. 1 inauguration of Salinas. Traditionally, the PRI holds its assembly after the new president takes power, but an early meeting “would be the first signal that the party is acquiring a life of its own, independent of presidential rituals,” one PRI official said.

Upcoming elections in 10 states are more likely to inhibit party reform than to aid it, according to a PRI senator, because the party will have to rely on its traditional, conservative sectors to win hotly contested races.

The PRI faces stiff competition from the Democratic Front in the gubernatorial race in the oil-rich state of Tabasco and from the National Action Party in the mayoral race in Guadalajara, Mexico’s second-largest city.

The PRI will try to use the state and local elections to show that the Democratic Front’s unprecedented success in the July elections was a temporary phenomenon reflecting the economic conditions rather than a real option for Mexico.

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The Democratic Front is a coalition of four small and traditionally divided parties ranging from the far-left Mexican Socialist Party to the anti-communist Authentic Party of the Mexican Revolution. While the leftist parties united behind Cardenas in the national election, they have so far been unable to agree on joint candidates in the local elections, thus splitting their potential following.

Democratic Front leaders say that unity is their No. 1 priority now. “As far as I am concerned, the best solution is the evolution toward a single party,” said Porfirio Munoz Ledo, a Democratic Front senator and close adviser to Cardenas. “But we cannot do that yet and we don’t really need to do it until the 1991 congressional elections, when we will have to have a single registry.”


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