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Mexico’s Ruling Party Begins Historic Primary

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

The party that has ruled Mexico for 70 years kicked off its first presidential primary Sunday, pushing into uncharted waters in a high-stakes attempt to transform itself from a tool of the presidency into a democratic institution.

More than 1,000 members of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, packed an auditorium here for the ceremony opening a three-month campaign by four candidates set to conclude in an unprecedented nationwide popular vote.

“It is no longer one person who decides who will be the PRI candidate. We are millions,” Jose Antonio Gonzalez Fernandez, the party president, declared at the ceremony, broadcast live on national television.

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But accompanying the jubilant declarations of democracy were palpable fears that the PRI could split apart. To the surprise of many, a real race has erupted in recent weeks of informal campaigning. Tabasco state Gov. Roberto Madrazo has surged in the polls, challenging another PRI career politician, Francisco Labastida, who is believed to have the support of President Ernesto Zedillo and the party hierarchy.

Such a democratic contest has never occurred in the PRI, where the all-powerful president traditionally picked his successor in a process nicknamed the dedazo, or big finger.

“This is the fall of our Berlin Wall,” said political columnist Raymundo Riva Palacio.

Two other PRI politicians seeking the nomination for the July 2000 presidential election, Manuel Bartlett and Humberto Roque Villanueva, are far behind in opinion polls.

The PRI primary comes as Mexico’s political landscape is being transformed. The country’s two major opposition parties announced Friday that they will begin negotiations to back a single candidate aimed at removing the PRI from power. An alliance between the right-wing National Action Party, or PAN, and the left-wing Democratic Revolution Party, or PRD, could represent the most serious threat to the PRI’s dominance. The PRI began to experiment with state primaries last year in an effort to stem its dramatic electoral slide. The party, which traditionally allowed the president to choose almost all major candidates along with his successor, hoped the process would produce popular nominees and slow defections to opposition parties.

The presidential primary will test whether the PRI has really embraced internal democracy--and whether it can survive competition without ripping itself apart.

Zedillo has led the democratization of his party and says he is not backing any candidate. But he is close to Labastida, who served as his interior minister. Meanwhile, in several speeches, the president has obliquely criticized Madrazo, a party hard-liner who has attacked Zedillo’s free-market economic policies. Such presidential criticism would hardly be unusual in a U.S. campaign. But in Mexico, it was viewed by many as an effort to influence PRI voters, who in the past obediently followed the president’s will.

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“Will the PRI [members] continue to respond to the culture of the party line?” asked Alfonso Zarate, who publishes a political newsletter in Mexico City. “This is the doubt that exists.”

Madrazo and other candidates have accused the party leadership of quietly tilting the scales in Labastida’s favor. On Sunday, as the four candidates spoke at the ceremony, Madrazo warned that any attempt to manipulate the Nov. 7 vote would backfire.

“Some [in the PRI] would like people to vote but not choose,” he told the crowd. Using the party machinery to favor one candidate “will irremediably lead us to defeat in 2000,” Madrazo said.

Party leaders took pains to emphasize that the competition will be fair and urged the candidates to avoid a fratricidal battle.

“The cohesion and unity of the party guarantee triumph. Division and fractures will move us toward defeat,” said Gonzalez Fernandez, speaking on a stage before a giant, round PRI symbol in the party colors--red, white and green.

Prior to the speeches, the candidates each were sworn in. They then raised their clasped hands in a symbol of party unity, as the audience applauded.

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Madrazo’s recent surge in the polls has stunned Mexicans inside and outside the PRI. When the party announced earlier this year that it would hold an open presidential primary, many had assumed Labastida would coast to victory. Key PRI politicians and leaders of party organizations quickly flocked to offer him support, in a version of the traditional cargada, or stampede, to embrace the candidate selected by the incumbent president.

But Madrazo has campaigned tirelessly, assailing Zedillo’s unpopular economic policies and the U.S.-educated “technocrats” who have led the government in recent years. Labastida has been criticized as looking like a colorless bureaucrat in contrast.

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