Mexico: Can the Old Ruling Party Adapt to a New World?

December 05, 1993|By GINGER THOMPSON

Mexico City. -- Mexico's Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) is "the perfect dictatorship," says writer Mario Vargas Llosa, because for the last 64 years it has managed to keep control of the government, unions, media and academic centers without provoking widespread civil unrest or retribution from the international community.

One reason for PRI's success is its ability to change its ideologies to reflect the mood of the country and to attract new, energetic leadership every two or three years. It also benefits from massive patronage. And, critics charge, when necessary, the PRI rigs elections.

1994 promises to be a watershed year for the PRI. In January, the North American Free Trade Agreement will be implemented, slowly eliminating tariffs on goods shipped between Mexico, Canada and the United States. And in August, a new president will be elected to guide the country into the 21st century.

However, analysts are divided on whether 1994 will mark a new beginning for the PRI -- or the beginning of the end.

"Linking your economy to countries like Canada and the United States, and then trying to maintain an authoritarian system, cannot work," said Primitivo Rodriguez, a Mexico political analyst at the American Friends Service Committee. "It is too much of a contrast."

But Roderic Ai Camp, a Latin America expert at Tulane University, expects the system to survive at least another decade. "The party has a wide coalition because it provides for the demands of the elite," said Mr. Camp. "But it also does a good P.R. job of convincing people that it is looking out for the needs of the common man."

President Carlos Salinas de Gortari has won his party widespread respect over his five years in office. He has been praised around the world as an enlightened reformer and one of the most successful world leaders of the day because of his dramatic economic policies.

He reversed protectionist laws and attracted billions of dollars in foreign investment. He has wrestled down inflation from more than 50 percent in 1989 to about 9 percent this year.

The president sold most government-owned industries and used some of the money for a massive public works program -- known as "Solidarity" -- that has provided thousands of poor communities with drinking water, electricity, hospitals, schools and paved roads.

He has enacted stricter environmental standards and initiated laws to make elections more fair.

Last week, however, it was clear that some things about the PRI -- including the will to hold on to power -- haven't changed.

On Sunday, the PRI announced that its candidate for president is Luis Donaldo Colosio, who resigned this week as the secretary of social development to accept the nomination. Instead of allowing the party's candidate to be determined by its rank-and-file members, the nomination was imposed from above an autocratic tradition called "el destape."

Presidents can only serve one six-year term, according to Mexican law. But "el destape" gives them the privilege of naming their successor. So far, at least, being picked for the nomination has been tantamount to winning office. The PRI has never lost a presidential election (and has lost local elections only occasionally).

Also last week, the PRI claimed a clean sweep in elections in the eastern state of Yucatan. Meanwhile, election observers reported dozens of irregularities at the polls, including stolen ballot boxes, power failures while votes were being counted, polls that remained closed most of election day, and unknown thugs hanging out in front of voting booths, intimidating voters by taking their pictures as they entered.

Victory margins announced by the PRI in some districts would have been possible only if there were significantly more votes cast than people registered to vote. For example, in the district of Chicxulub, 143 percent of registered electors cast a vote, according to the PRI figures.

Both "el destape" and the Yucatan elections sparked furious criticism and protests. Some analysts say that economic liberties allowed by President Salinas over the last several years have unleashed tremendous pressure for political liberties -- pressures that may prove overwhelming for the PRI.

"I feel we are at a historic moment where we have a lot of space to really push hard for democratic reforms," said Sergio Aguayo, a human rights advocate and political analyst at the Colegio de Mexico. "We are entering a minefield, but if we don't do it now, we will never do it."

In Yucatan, the conservative National Action Party (PAN) insists that it won the gubernatorial race and at least six of the 106 mayoral races in the state. Its protests have grown increasingly raucous, and, on Wednesday, PRI Gov. Dulce Maria Sauri Riancho resigned after charges of vote fraud.

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