Mexico's Ruling Party Loses Presidency in Historic Election

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Voters in Mexico ousted the world's longest-ruling faction, the Institutional Revolutionary Party, on Sunday, handing the presidency to maverick businessman Vicente Fox in a stunning upset, according to preliminary results.

"The next president of the republic will be Mr. Vicente Fox Quesada," declared President Ernesto Zedillo in a nationally televised address late Sunday. "Today we have proved that our democracy is mature."

It was the first time in 71 years that a Mexican president had announced he was turning over the powerful office to another party.

Fox of the National Action Party, or PAN, was the clear winner in a series of quick counts carried out by the nation's election agency at representative polling stations. He also was leading by 6 to 9 percentage points in three exit polls carried out by Mexican television networks and an exit poll conducted separately by The Times and the Mexico City daily Reforma.

The ruling party's loss spelled the end of a political regime that influenced nearly all aspects of Mexican life in the 20th century. The Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, created a system based on virtual one-party rule that modernized Mexico and brought it remarkable political stability. But the party had come under increasing attack in recent years for economic mismanagement and corruption.

"It's like the collapse of the Berlin Wall, or the collapse of the Communist system," Mexican writer and environmentalist Homero Aridjis said.

Roderic Camp, a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College in California, proclaimed it a "revolutionary change."

"This is Mexico moving the process of democratization for the first time at the national level beyond the electoral process," he said.

In other words: Mexico doesn't just have clean elections now. It is going to change the party at the pinnacle of power. That puts the vote on a par with the U.S. election of 1800, the first time political power changed hands democratically in the United States.

"We are inaugurating a new political regime at this moment," said Lorenzo Meyer, a prominent historian, speaking on Mexican television.

Spontaneous celebrations erupted outside the PAN headquarters here, where supporters held up giant foam symbols of Fox's anti-PRI campaign and cried: Ya! (Enough already!) Thousands more gathered around a major Mexico City monument, the Angel of Independence, whooping, blowing horns and madly waving flags.

"This is a moment that Mexico has waited for--60 years of fighting so that our vote would be respected. Finally, we have won," declared a weeping PAN senator, Maria Elena Alvarez, at the party headquarters.

PRI's Labastida Concedes Defeat

PRI presidential candidate Francisco Labastida, who had held a slender margin in preelection polls, conceded defeat late Sunday.

"The citizens took a decision that we must respect. I will set an example," the longtime bureaucrat said. "Our party is alive, it will stay alive and will know how to recover, with the unity of all the PRI members."

Zedillo praised the PRI for its historic contributions to Mexico, and for passing reforms allowing the nation's cleanest presidential election in history. Many of those reforms were spearheaded by Zedillo himself, who abandoned the tradition by which outgoing presidents effectively selected their successors.

Zedillo announced he will meet shortly with the president-elect to help coordinate the country's first democratic, peaceful turnover of power. He said he had telephoned Fox to assure him of the "absolute willingness of the government I lead to work together in all important aspects to ensure a good start for the next administration."

There were no clear results Sunday night on the outcome of congressional elections. All seats in the federal Senate and Chamber of Deputies were being contested. The PRI lost control of the lower house for the first time in 1997 and always has had a majority in the Senate.

PAN Unseats PRI for Governor Post

In the other major race Sunday, exit polls indicated the Mexico City mayor's post would go to Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador of the center-left Democratic Revolution Party, or PRD. The PAN won two state governorships up for grabs, succeeding the PRI in Morelos and cinching a third straight term in Guanajuato, where Fox grew up.

Fox moved quickly Sunday night to assure members of other parties--especially the PRI, which still controls two-thirds of Mexico's governorships--that he wants to cooperate and not seek vengeance. He pledged to include members of other parties in his government.

"This is the starting point for building a great nation," he declared in a television interview, looking composed, as usual.

"Today we celebrate. It's a historic day. A day of happiness. But tomorrow the work begins," he declared.

Fox differed little from his PRI competitor, Labastida, on substantive issues. Both favor Mexico's pro-market course and had promised greater economic growth and more spending on education. But Fox presented himself as the man who could bring true democracy to Mexico.

And voters overwhelmingly wanted change, according to results from the Times/Reforma exit poll, which gave Fox a 45% to 36% lead over Labastida. The PRD's Cuauhtemoc Cardenas was running a distant third, with 17%, according to the poll.

The PAN is a center-right, pro-business party founded in 1939. For years, it was as good as shut out of power by the PRI, a party that was virtually fused to the federal government. It wasn't until 1989 that the PAN won a governorship in Mexico, taking Baja California.

The party has made steady gains in recent years, especially in cities and northern states and among young people. But it took the charismatic candidacy of Fox to make it a genuine contender for the presidency. Fox, 58, a towering, mustached figure often compared with the Marlboro Man, is a former rancher, Coca-Cola executive and governor of the central state of Guanajuato.

He revolutionized Mexican politics by running a three-year, U.S.-style campaign heavy on media coverage and blunt language. He abandoned the stuffy image of Mexican politicians, donning blue jeans and cowboy boots in his endless travels around the country.

Fox is not expected to significantly change Mexico's relations with the United States. But, he told The Times late Sunday: "We will be starting a new relationship, a relationship that will be the result of the first democratic government of Mexico. This gives us moral authority, and democratic legitimacy. My commitment is that we can construct something good between our nations. We are friends, we are neighbors, we are partners in NAFTA [the North American Free Trade Agreement]. And now we are going to increase that relationship."

Sunday's PRI loss marked the culmination of a long slide in the party's support. For much of the 20th century, the PRI won the presidency with more than 75% of the vote. Such high margins were the result of the party's achievements in modernizing Mexico, the near-absence of opposition parties and outright fraud.

The PRI reign was so long--and the party so omnipresent--that many Mexicans seemed to think it would be in power forever. Even in 1994, Zedillo won with better than 50% of the vote, like all his PRI predecessors.

"This basically changes the mentality of the Mexican people. [It shows] that what has occurred on the state and local levels--where opposition victories have been real and functional--is true on the national level," said Camp, the political scientist.

The vote reflected the vast changes that have occurred under the PRI. In a matter of decades, Mexico has been transformed from a mainly rural society to a mostly urban, better educated populace.

Even beyond the opposition victory, the vote was a watershed in a country in which the PRI had traditionally won elections by stealing ballot boxes, busing in supporters and even resorting to bloodshed. Only minor irregularities were reported Sunday. A mere 0.01% of polling stations failed to open Sunday, a record.

The balloting was overseen for the first time by an independent authority, the Federal Electoral Institute, the showpiece of sweeping legal reforms instituted in the last few years.

"We are looking at an exemplary vote," said Jose Woldenberg, president of the institute.

The vote was preceded by a campaign that was more equitable than any in modern Mexican history. Due to the country's increasing democracy and electoral reforms, the PRI lost such traditional advantages as one-sided media coverage and lopsided campaign financing.

Many Mexicans believe that fraud tipped the scales in the presidential election in 1988, when the PRI got a serious challenge from Cardenas, the son of a legendary former president. Cardenas again ran unsuccessfully in 1994.

While there was little blatant fraud reported Sunday, opposition parties and electoral observers complained that the PRI's vast machine had shifted into high gear in recent weeks, pressuring voters or attempting to buy their loyalty through such freebies as food packages and building materials.

Still, the PRI entered the election with greater democratic credentials than ever. Labastida became the party's candidate through its first presidential primary. It was a major break from the dedazo, or fingering, with which each outgoing president named another PRI member as his successor, with elections serving merely to ratify the choice.

Some Cast Their Vote 'Against Corruption'

On Sunday, voters said the changes had transformed their experiences of a presidential election.

"For the first time in the life of Mexico, people feel they can make a difference voting," said Miguel Elenes, 36, an office worker, after he cast his ballot in Roma, a middle-class Mexico City neighborhood.

Mexicans voted in droves. Long lines snaked from polling stations in crowded cities and tree-lined village plazas. In addition to the three leading candidates, two minor-party politicians also sought the presidency: Manuel Camacho Solis of the Center Democratic Party and Gilberto Rincon Gallardo of the Social Democratic Party.

Many of those voting for Fox explained their choices as a rejection of the PRI, rather than support for any particular policy ideas of the PAN candidate.

"My vote is against corruption--70 years of it," said Juan Sarmiento Juarez, who cast his ballot for Fox in a middle-class neighborhood of Puebla, in central Mexico.

"We are seeking change for the well-being of our children. The young people who are better educated are the ones making the change happen," the 50-year-old salesman declared.

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Times staff writers James F. Smith and Ken Ellingwood contributed to this report.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

The History of the PRI

1929: Ex-President Plutarco Elias Calles forms the National Revolutionary Party, precursor to the Institutional Revolutionary Party, uniting factions that emerged from the 1910-17 revolution and providing a means for the peaceful transfer of power.

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1938: Lazaro Cardenas nationalizes the oil industry, the climax of his strongly nationalist presidency. Cardenas also carries out land reform and organizes rural and labor groups. Ruling party is renamed Mexican Revolution Party.

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1946: Miguel Aleman becomes first civilian president since 1929. Ruling party takes its current name, Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI.

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1954: Mexico starts a roughly 20-year period of sustained growth that becomes PRI's "Golden Age." Average annual growth of at least 5% allows increased spending on schools, hospitals and other infrastructure.

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1968: Anti-government protests by students end in disaster, as the army and police massacre about 300 demonstrators in Mexico City. The killing is a turning point in society's view of PRI government.

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1982: Oil prices fall and Mexico enters an economic crisis. It is the start of a "Lost Decade" for Mexico and much of debt-ridden Latin America.

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1987: PRI suffers its first major split when Cuauhtemoc Cardenas, son of the legendary president, and other leftists bolt.

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1988: Cardenas gives PRI its stiffest challenge, nearly winning elections plagued by fraud and the collapse of the election computer system. Carlos Salinas de Gortari of the PRI wins.

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1989: For the first time, PRI loses a governorship--to the center-right National Action Party, or PAN, in Baja California.

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1993: Mexico joins the North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA, reinforcing the break with its protectionist past.

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1994: Zapatista rebels launch an uprising in the southern state of Chiapas, demanding better conditions for indigenous people. Scores are killed before a cease-fire is reached. PRI presidential candidate Luis Donaldo Colosio is assassinated in Tijuana. Campaign coordinator Ernesto Zedillo replaces him and wins the election, only to see the peso plummet and foreign capital flee shortly after he takes office. It is the worst economic crisis in modern Mexican history.

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1997: PRI loses majority in the lower house of Congress for the first time and loses control of Mexico City to Cardenas in the first direct mayoral election.

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1999: Zedillo abandons the tradition of hand-picking the PRI presidential nominee. PRI holds its first open presidential primary, nominating Francisco Labastida, who faces PAN's Vicente Fox and Cardenas in the tightest race in Mexican history.

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ELECTION RECORD

PRI's share of vote in presidential elections:

1934 Lazaro Cardenas: 98.1%

1940 Manuel Avila Camacho: 93.8%

1946 Miguel Aleman: 77.9%

1952 Adolfo Ruiz Cortines: 74.3%

1958 Adolfo Lopez Mateos: 90.4%

1964 Gustavo Diaz Ordaz: 88.8%

1970 Luis Echeverria: 85.8%

1976 Jose Lopez Portillo: 98.7%

1982 Miguel de la Madid: 71.6%

1988 Caolos Salinas de Gortari: 50.7%

1994 Ernesto Zedillo: 50.2%

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More on the Vote

* POLL RESULTS--Those who voted for Fox were driven by one overwhelming desire--change. A17

* A CLEAN ELECTION--Balloting gains praise from observers as apparently free of major fraud. A18

* MAYOR'S RACE--A leftist heads for win in Mexico City and is a contender for president in 2006. A18

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