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Heart Still Beats in Mexican Political Dinosaur

Times Staff Writer

MONTERREY, Mexico -- Shattered by its loss of the presidency three years ago, Mexico’s Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, seemed to be moving quickly from omnipotence to oblivion. It appeared to be anachronistic, out of touch with the Mexican middle class, and hopelessly corrupt.

But the PRI has made a strong recovery from the beating administered by Vicente Fox and the National Action Party, or PAN, in 2000. PRI leader Roberto Madrazo managed to hold together the party’s feuding factions just enough to achieve a solid resurgence in national elections Sunday, midway through Fox’s term.

“The country is waking up at the side of a dinosaur that has not died,” political analyst Denise Dresser wrote in the newspaper Reforma on Monday. “The election has shaken it out of hibernation.”

In the aftermath of the PRI’s surprisingly strong showing, three questions stand out: How did the PRI come back from its crushing loss of 2000? What will the party do with its increased power and responsibility? And does the victory make Madrazo the PRI’s clear front-runner for presidential candidate?

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The PRI’s resurgence is most clearly visible in the border state of Nuevo Leon, where it lost the governor’s race six years ago. This time, Madrazo brokered peace among contenders within the party, held an open primary and wrested the state back from Fox’s center-right party.

Building a broad base of support from union members, middle-class housewives and disenchanted businessmen, the PRI’s Jose Natividad Gonzalez won the Nuevo Leon governorship by 20 percentage points over the PAN’s Mauricio Fernandez. The PRI’s Ricardo Canavati won the mayor’s race in Monterrey, the state capital, by an even wider margin.

The PRI also gained at least 15 seats in the National Assembly, while its main rival lost as many as 54 seats in the lower house. It outpolled its rival in total votes cast by 34.4% to 30.5%, the first time the president’s party has failed to garner a plurality of votes in a midterm election since the Mexican revolution.

The PRI “learned how to knock on doors again,” said Canavati, who lost the PRI gubernatorial primary to Gonzalez in November before being persuaded by Madrazo, the PRI party leader, to run for mayor of Monterrey.

The biggest change, in image at least, is the PRI’s new openness. The PRI now holds open primary elections for its gubernatorial nominees, replacing the anointment of candidates by party chiefs in Mexico City.

Its election strategy was to appeal to the everyday pocketbook worries of Mexicans, said PRI strategist Mentor Tijerina, who helped guide Gonzalez’s campaign.

In interviews Monday morning amid the confetti that still littered the hotel here where Gonzalez claimed victory Sunday night, Tijerina explained how he and others turned a 20 percentage point disadvantage in February 2002 into a landslide win.

The most important step was holding an open primary to select the PRI’s gubernatorial candidate, as the party did in other states. Anyone could vote, no matter what their party affiliation, and the PRI made points with the electorate for its openness.

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Meanwhile, the PAN held closed nominating conventions and, in the case of Nuevo Leon, forbade candidates from criticizing either Fox or the unpopular incumbent PAN governor. Riven by internal squabbles, the PAN took months last year to decide on a candidate while Gonzalez hammered the PAN administration for its failure to deliver on promised economic progress and for a high-handed policy in public works projects that included a costly and controversial suspension bridge.

After the contentious PRI primary, Madrazo smoothed over the bitterness by brokering a deal in which the losers agreed to run as a slate of candidates for other Nuevo Leon offices. Canavati; Eloy Cantu, who ran for mayor of suburban San Pedro; and Abel Guerra, who ran for Congress, all ended up winning.

The PRI was able to regain the support of Nuevo Leon labor unions, which blamed the PAN for a steep rise in manufacturing unemployment. Union members didn’t buy PAN’s argument that job losses were caused by forces beyond its power, including the U.S. economic downturn and the flight of manufacturing to China.

Hector Garcia Garcia, head of the 20,000-member municipal employees union of Nuevo Leon, said that 96% of his membership voted for the PRI in Sunday’s election -- up from 80% in 2000.

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In the state of Jalisco, where the PRI captured the office of mayor in Zapopan, a suburb of Guadalajara, it was able to cultivate an image of a party with a heart. The PRI’s network of professionals offered the poor and the unemployed basic medical services at the party headquarters in Guadalajara.

In any case, the PRI finds itself in a position of strength in the lower house of the national assembly. To avoid the legislative paralysis in the next three years that dogged him over the first three, Fox may have to forge some kind of alliance with his rivals. Tijerina said the PRI could consider a host of options, including taking positions in Fox’s Cabinet or accepting some sort of power sharing arrangement.

In a brief television interview Monday, Fox said he was willing to forge a new relationship with congressional deputies of the PRI and other opposition parties. “Now begins the era of consensus, of accords,” Fox said, promising that his administration would “redouble its efforts” to enact reforms.

But Carlos Elizondo Mayer-Serra, director of Mexico City’s Center for Economic Research and Teaching, said such power sharing is a long shot because Madrazo cannot guarantee the PRI party discipline that Fox would require in exchange for such a deal.

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“What I anticipate, sadly, is that the paralysis will continue. This is less a PRI triumph than a disaster for Fox and the PAN,” Elizondo said.

The PAN now controls less than one-third of lower house seats and cannot automatically block opposition lawmakers from overriding Fox vetoes of budget legislation. That gives the PRI more power than ever over the federal purse strings.

Armand Peschard-Sverdrup, head of the Mexico Project at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, cautioned that the PRI gains are somewhat misleading because of the low 41% turnout.

The PRI benefits from light voting because with its control of more state houses and city halls across Mexico than any other party, it can mobilize its electoral infrastructure to turn out the vote. But the bottom line, he said, was that Fox and the PAN failed to rally support.

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“Fox has made incredible inroads in increasing transparency and accountability in Mexican government. But those are not tangible benefits that translate into electoral victories,” Peschard-Sverdrup said.

It will be up to PRI leadership to use its gains to its advantage in the upcoming legislative session, the 10 gubernatorial races in 2004 and the 2006 presidential elections.

The PRI’s Madrazo faces a number of potential challengers, and a contentious battle is shaping up for the leadership of the PRI delegation in the national assembly, which is more attractive now because of the party’s new strength in the legislature.

Party insiders say winning the PRI candidacy will depend on who is perceived as being able to deliver the economic progress and social reforms that Mexicans are hungry for.

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Oswaldo Acosta, a Gonzalez political advisor, said that soon it will be up to the governor-elect to deliver on the promises he made to Nuevo Leon voters. “Mexican voters are maturing very rapidly. It’s not enough for them that you are a good candidate. You have to be good at governing.”

Times staff writer Richard Boudreaux in Mexico City and special correspondent Trudy Balch in Guadalajara contributed to this report.


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