Will Democracy Save The Mexican Ruling Party's Hide?

By calling a presidential primary, the PRI may salvage victory

It's called dedazo, or "pointing the big finger." That's how Mexican Presidents have traditionally shown their power in the months leading up to presidential elections. They handpick their candidate from the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which has ruled Mexico for the past 70 years. But this time around, President Ernest Zedillo--ever the technocrat--made it known that he wouldn't pick his own candidate for elections scheduled in July, 2000. Instead, Zedillo claimed he would bring democracy to the long-authoritarian PRI.

No one knew whether to believe Zedillo. But on May 17, top PRI leaders acted on Zedillo's recommendation and made a bold decision to hold a competitive primary to select the party's presidential candidate for the first time ever. The Nov. 7 primary will be open to all registered voters regardless of their party affiliation.

The PRI's decision could be risky. By trusting the voters, Zedillo is opening up the opportunity for hardline party bosses--known as dinosaurs because they resist change--to campaign hard, spend big, and win the nomination. Yet at the same time, the daring move to inject a new measure of democracy into the 2000 elections could well improve the PRI's image in the eyes of the electorate.

Indeed, many observers have been betting that the PRI would lose the election largely because of its backward, authoritarian image. But "if they manage to carry out a transparent, above-board primary, the PRI will emerge from this process with a degree of credibility that basically assures their victory in 2000," argues Denise Dresser, a political scientist at the Autonomous Technological Institute of Mexico (ITAM).

The decision to hold a primary could also help unite the fractured party by allowing rival candidates a fair shot at the presidential nomination for the first time ever. Already a raft of PRI candidates have begun campaigning, including hardliners such as Roberto Madrazo, governor of the state of Tabasco, and Manuel Bartlett, former governor of the state of Puebla. Although he isn't choosing a successor, Zedillo is believed to favor his Interior Minister, Francisco Labastida, who holds more moderate, open-market policies.

The PRI has yet to deal with one more serious issue linked to the elections--campaign spending. PRI officials say they will soon announce the party's rules governing campaign financing, including a proposed $5 million ceiling on each candidate's expenditures and a limit on television advertising time. The party also says candidates must disclose the names of their donors and details on how they spend their funds, although party oversight is expected to be minimal. Some analysts are concerned that illegal-drug traffickers may try to bankroll some candidates through laundered contributions.

Meanwhile, rumors abound that former President Carlos Salinas de Gortari may get involved in the election. Some say Salinas may attempt to back one or more candidates financially in an effort to secure the release of his brother Raul, who is serving a 50-year sentence for conspiracy in a 1994 political murder. That's one reason Mexicans are calling on PRI officials to enforce campaign spending controls strictly.

QUANDARY. As PRI members gear up for their November primary, opposition parties are in a quandary. To avoid looking less democratic than the PRI, they will probably be forced to hold their own primaries or public party conventions. The center-right National Action Party (PAN) is expected to hold a primary limited to party members to ratify its likely candidate, Guanajuato state Governor Vicente Fox. A recent poll gave him a 24.1% popularity rating, compared with 18.8% for Madrazo and 13.9% for Labastida.

But the center-left Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) is in a bigger fix. It recently canceled its own nationwide election for a new party leader when the two candidates accused each other of vote-buying and electoral fraud. PRD candidates vying for the presidential nomination include Mexico City Mayor Cuautemoc Cardenas and party co-founder Porfirio Munoz Ledo.

In all three parties, the campaigning is expected to intensify quickly over the next few months, even though the national vote is more than a year away. Both candidates and voters are readying themselves for Mexico's most competitive presidential contest ever.