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Candidate Vows Reform of Mexico Ruling Party : Elections: The PRI’s Ernesto Zedillo pledges to separate the political organization from the government.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In the 65 years that Mexico’s ruling party has maintained a stranglehold on power, the succession process has come to be known simply as “the finger"--the anointing by sitting presidents of every political candidate from mayor to presidential hopefuls in closed party sessions that rendered elections little more than formalities.

But this week, with less than three weeks before the most hotly contested presidential race in more than six decades, Ernesto Zedillo, the ruling party’s candidate, vowed to cut off the rite.

Laying the cornerstone of a startling crusade to reshape the authoritarian image of his long-ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, Zedillo unveiled sweeping proposals that would, in effect, revolutionize and deinstitutionalize the PRI.

In a major address to party leaders, played back to the Mexican people with a sense of national amazement Friday--one tabloid declared in towering headlines: “The End of the Finger!"--Zedillo vowed to separate the ruling party from the government for the first time in six decades.

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He promised that, if elected, he will cede wide powers to states, municipalities and the new legislature that also will be elected Aug. 21. He called on his party to open up its secretive process of selecting candidates, particularly in future presidential races.

“I want to be emphatic in my commitment that . . . I am resolved not to intervene, in any way, in the process of selecting candidates for the PRI,” said Zedillo, 42, who was himself chosen in a closed-door party meeting after Luis Donaldo Colosio, the then-PRI presidential aspirant, was assassinated at a March campaign rally.

Declaring “now is the hour of democracy,” he indicated that, amid strong challenges from two of eight opposition parties contesting the elections, the PRI now has little choice but to modernize and liberalize from within.

One illustration of the depth of Zedillo’s proposed changes--and the widespread suspicion that accompanied them--was contained in a story Friday in Mexico’s respected daily La Jornada. It described the scene at a campaign rally in the state of Chihuahua.

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“Nobody believed it--and few do believe it,” the paper reported. “The PRI party faithful, the journalists and politicians high and low murmured incredulously, ‘Zedillo cut off his finger.’ ”

But Zedillo, who holds an economics doctorate from Yale, made it clear he is serious about the reforms; most Mexican political analysts say they are vital if the PRI is to fend off the most strident electoral challenge to its rule since 1929.

At one point after his Mexico City speech, a group of journalists tried to joke with Zedillo about the proposal.

“How is your wound?” one asked.

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“What wound?” Zedillo replied.

“The finger. You cut it this morning.”

“You journalists never take anything seriously,” he replied.

Clearly, Zedillo’s image-makers and the reform-minded factions in his diverse, amorphous party are taking his pledges seriously. His speech was just one of several major offensives the PRI is launching in the final phase of the grueling campaign.

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With polls showing Zedillo leading by only a narrow margin over his closest rival, Diego Fernandez de Cevallos of the center-right National Action Party, and reflecting strong gains by the campaign of Cuauhtemoc Cardenas and his center-left Democratic Revolutionary Party, the PRI this week unveiled a sophisticated multimedia package to cast itself as architect of Mexico’s transition to multi-party pluralism and true democracy.

To be sure, there have been previous--unsuccessful--efforts at reform. Colosio, while party chairman, tried to introduce a system of primary elections. But party hard-liners--who are likely to oppose Zedillo on the issue as well--rejected Colosio’s proposal.

The latest campaign includes a 45-minute video that was to be shown Friday to party members.

Titled “The PRI and Mexican Democracy,” the video asserts the party “has been the principal player in creating a modern multi-party system” and “is the first party interested in carrying out a legal, transparent and easily verifiable electoral process.”

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The presentation also stresses that the PRI has won elections not through corruption--as many Mexican voters suspect--but because it is the only truly national party with support in every state, village and city block.

Zedillo’s senior campaign aides said the pitch is designed for internal and external consumption; one campaign official said the video was being distributed to all party workers to embolden them against accusations of corruption and electoral fraud.

He added that a package containing the videocassettes and a booklet by the same name, also translated into English and French, will be given to the hundreds of foreign observers the Mexican government will allow to monitor the election for the first time.

The new pitch also reflects the radical change in tone in Zedillo’s speech to the party Thursday. Among the reasons for the PRI’s survival, the package states, is the party’s ability to transform and reform itself, noting its executive committee has had 31 presidents in its 65 years in power. “This is the way Mexico has prevented political oligarchies,” it asserts, “and permitted a natural generational change in its leadership.”

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But in a comment typical of the skeptical reaction to Zedillo’s speech, opponent Fernandez told reporters at a campaign stop Friday in Poza Rica in the state of Veracruz: “He must resign because he is a product of the finger.”


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