Facing widening ruptures within his ruling party, President Ernesto Zedillo took a step back from efforts to distance his government from the party by delivering the keynote address at a high-profile political meeting Saturday.
Zedillo's appearance at the party's 66th anniversary celebration was a sharp departure from previous efforts to downplay his role in the Institutional Revolutionary Party, known as the PRI, which has been synonymous with Mexico's government for decades. He had even gone so far as to stop attending the inaugurations of PRI governors in an effort to appear nonpartisan.
But Saturday, with his nation and his party in deepening crises, Zedillo turned to the PRI for support and offered it his.
"As a Mexican and as president, I well know where the greatest base of support and legitimacy for my government is," Zedillo told cheering party loyalists.
Still, he clearly restated his commitment not to play the traditional presidential role of PRI leader and dispute arbiter.
Aware that his appearance at party headquarters would spark controversy, Zedillo moved to preempt criticism. He defended his efforts to promote democracy by turning over more power to the PRI-controlled Congress and by working with all political parties.
"These actions for a new democracy clearly give me the moral force to come here today, very proudly, with great satisfaction, to the headquarters of my party," he said.
"I wanted to attend this ceremony because the PRI, which has contributed so much to political stability, to social organization and to the institutional modernization of Mexico, is today a wounded party," Zedillo said.
He said the party has been injured by the smoldering conflict in the southern state of Chiapas, the unsolved assassinations of two prominent party leaders, the effects of an economic crisis that has reduced the peso's value 40% since December and "by those who imagine that all democratic advancement is equivalent to the defeat of the PRI."
In the days leading up to the anniversary celebration, analysts and political opponents focused on the widening cracks in a PRI facade of unity that had covered a labyrinth of competing interests.
The party that had never lost a governorship until six years ago has since ceded four states to the opposition and faces the prospect of losses in two more this spring.
The new attorney general, the first from an opposition party, has made significant advances in the investigation of the two political assassinations. He has charged prominent PRI members--including the brother of former President Carlos Salinas de Gortari--with masterminding one of the crimes, the September killing of PRI Secretary General Francisco Ruiz Massieu.
Atty. Gen. Antonio Lozano is questioning witnesses already interrogated by the investigators whom Salinas chose, which has led to some confusion, including false reports that another suspect had been arrested in the murder of PRI presidential candidate Luis Donaldo Colosio. Mario Alberto Carrillo, who is seen in videos of the slaying diving into the crowd shortly before Colosio was shot, is only wanted for questioning, authorities said Saturday.
The attorney general is also raising questions about the investigators Salinas chose, particularly Mario Ruiz Massieu, the brother of Francisco Ruiz Massieu.
After a six-hour grilling Thursday on accusations that he covered up evidence in the investigation into the murder of his brother, Mario Ruiz Massieu was arrested Friday in the Newark, N.J., airport on his way to Spain. U.S. customs authorities accused him of violating U.S. currency law by failing to declare the amount of currency he was carrying.
And former President Salinas himself has embarrassed the nation for the last two days. By shuttling back and forth between the capital and the northern industrial city of Monterrey in an on-again, off-again hunger strike, he successfully pressured the government into clearing him of blame in the two killings.
Reports issued Saturday by the two special prosecutors who investigated the Colosio assassination during Salinas' administration stated that the former president did not interfere with their work.
Against that background, prominent party members, including former teachers union President Elba Esther Gordillo, have openly criticized PRI President Maria de los Angeles Moreno for a lack of political savvy.
The internal squabbling has become so evident that prominent opposition politicians such as Luis H. Alvarez, the 76-year-old former chairman of the conservative National Action Party, are predicting the PRI's demise.
Political analyst Arnaldo Cordova told the business newspaper El Financiero that reformist groups within the party seeking to make the PRI independent from the government do not have enough strength to impose such reforms on the more traditional sectors.
The traditional politicians would prefer the old system, where the government financed the party and the president also ruled the PRI, settling disputes like an old-fashioned ward politician.
While Zedillo asked for the party's support Saturday, he made it clear that he will not return to that old system.
"I repeat my firm determination not to intervene in the internal decisions and procedures that should be made by PRI activists and directors," he said. "As president of all Mexicans, I am conscious of what the nature of my relationship with the PRI, my party, should be."
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Mexico's Political Landscape
Here is a brief look at the three main political parties:
* Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). Has controlled Mexican politics for 66 years. Successor to party that sprang out of the Mexican Revolution, and founded on principles of land reform, economic nationalism, social welfare, independent foreign policy. Founded in 1929, it went through a number o incarnations before it took on its current look in 1946 as the Partido Revolucionario Institucional.
* National Action Party (PAN). Largest minority party, politically rightist. Partido de Accion Nacional organized in 1939 on a conservative economic and pro-church platform. Base of support is among the upper-middle and professional classes, business and conservative Catholics. PAN usually gets less than 15% of the presidential vote but holds a few seats in state legislatures and 10 to 20 seats in the Chamber of Deputies. The PRI tolerates PAN more than left-wing groups because its strong conservative orientation tends to strengthen popular support of the PRI.
* Democratic Revolution Party (PRD). The major leftist party, Partido de la Revolucion Democratica was founded in 1989. Its current president, co-founder Porfirio Munoz Ledo, is a former PRI member who served as secretary of labor, secretary of education, ambassador to the United Nations and president of the PRI.
Sources: The Latin American Political Dictionary, Ernest E. Rossi and Jack C. Piano; Andrew Reding, the New School for Social Research