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Mexico: Can Fox Govern With The Pri In A Shambles?

International Outlook

Mexico: Can Fox Govern with the PRI in a Shambles?

For most of a century, the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) was Mexico's most powerful political institution. But now the PRI is in a shambles: Not only is it still reeling from the shock of losing the presidency for the first time to National Action Party (PAN) candidate Vicente Fox last July, but it is leaderless, nearly bankrupt, and bereft of a defining ideology. The next several months will determine whether the PRI can pull itself together to become a viable opposition force--or whether it is doomed to splinter, or even disappear.

The PRI's struggle for survival has profound implications for Mexico as it ends seven decades of one-party rule when Fox takes office on Dec. 1. You would think the new administration would cheer the party's disarray. After all, feuding factions of hard-liners, technocrats, and reformers can't even agree on how to choose a new leader of the PRI, which has traditionally been headed by the Mexican President.

But Fox's allies fear that a divided PRI could actually make it far harder for the new administration to implement key economic and political reforms. Says Felipe Calderon, PAN leader in the lower house of Congress: "Until the PRI rebuilds itself and determines who truly leads the party, their decision-making will be torturously difficult, and it will slow us down."

The first signs of trouble could appear on Dec. 2, when debate begins on next year's budget. Anticipating a slowdown in the U.S., Fox is planning an austere budget with sharp spending cuts. But the PRI's sizable faction in Congress could hold the budget hostage to demands for more social spending. That could scuttle plans to keep the deficit low, possibly spooking investors. Fox also faces battles on tax reform and opening the electricity industry to private investment.

As long as he has no anointed PRI leader with whom to negotiate, Fox will have to horsetrade with competing groups of PRI deputies to win approval for reforms. Bound by party discipline in the past, PRI deputies usually voted as a bloc. Now, until the party's fate is decided, the PRI's 211 congressional deputies and 60 senators will be free to vote as they like.RADICAL MAKEOVER. That may only accelerate the fight for the party's heart and soul. Already, PRI reformers are calling for a radical makeover. "We want a new party name, a new party emblem, and a totally new, democratic party structure," says Agustin Basave, a leader of the PRI's "Renewal" faction. If reformers fail to transform the PRI, they are expected to form a new social democratic party.

Old-style PRI pols will resist a dramatic makeover. Tabasco Governor Roberto Madrazo, a leading contender to head the party, has pledged a more modest overhaul to give more power to regional party bosses. But moderate PRIistas think he's the wrong man for the job: He is linked to several elections marred by allegations of fraud.

Moderates would prefer someone like 46-year-old Diodoro Carrasco, Interior Secretary for outgoing President Ernesto Zedillo. Madrazo could have a chance of beating Carrasco, though, because many party members are furious at Zedillo for allowing the PRI to lose the presidency. "Zedillo may look like a democrat internationally, but he was an authoritarian party leader who was responsible for the PRI's downfall," grumbles Senator Manuel Bartlett, a PRI hard-liner.

The showdown will likely take place next spring, when the party is expected to hold a national assembly. However it plays out, there's no doubt that a major remapping of Mexico's political landscape is under way. After years of fighting the PRI's one-party rule, the new Mexican President must gear up for the rough-and-tumble of democracy.By Geri Smith in Mexico City; Edited by Rose BradyReturn to top

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