Commentary: Why Mexicans Won't Toss Out The Ruling Party

To outsiders, it may seem like a baffling victory. On Nov. 7, Mexico's Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), the world's longest-ruling party, held its first-ever primary election to choose its presidential candidate. The winner was former Interior Minister Francisco Labastida Ochoa, who captured 273 out of 300 voting districts. Labastida, widely seen as the Establishment candidate, creamed Roberto Madrazo Pintado, a firebrand politician who had pledged to completely revamp the party. Now, with the PRI's opposition divided, Labastida is the odds-on favorite to win the presidential election next year.

How could this have happened? In the last few years, the PRI's reputation has been endlessly battered, first by a peso crisis that arose from its own inept policies, then by one scandalous case of corruption after another. These problems created a big rift within the party. Many analysts expected the PRI to be dangerously weakened or to be split asunder as the primary fueled animosities.

Wrong on all counts. Far from showing a party in terminal decline, the primary revealed the PRI's uncanny ability to adapt to Mexico's changing political landscape. Sensing discontent with the party's top-down style of leadership, the PRI let voters decide for the first time who its presidential candidate would be. But the PRI correctly divined that its loyal followers don't want dramatic change in a party whose fortunes, for better or worse, are intimately tied to their own. Priistas sent a clear message: Gradual change is best.

The prospect of incremental moves toward democracy may underwhelm observers who expected a more dramatic transformation. But the PRI knows that many Mexicans have grown accustomed to paternalistic government. The country's poor--who make up more than half of the population--place a higher value on government handouts than on political pluralism. Millions of families rely on farm subsidies or receive cash grants in exchange for keeping their children in school. And thanks to the absence of a professional civil service, hundreds of thousands of bureaucrats depend on PRI patronage for their livelihood. "Mexico's political structure is a buddy system, a dense clientilistic web that will take generations to untangle," says political scientist Denise Dresser, of the Autonomous Technological Institute of Mexico (ITAM).

The idea of orderly political succession also touches something deep in Mexicans. For most of its uninterrupted 70-year reign, the party has ably capitalized on Mexicans' fear of abrupt political change. In Mexican history, dissent usually ends in bloodshed. More than a million lives were lost during the 1910-20 Mexican Revolution. A 1968 student protest provoked a deadly Army crackdown. Hundreds of peasants and soldiers died during the January, 1995, Zapatista rebellion in Chiapas. Thus the collective memory drives many Mexicans to favor a cautious approach in matters as weighty as choosing a president.

This explains Labastida's appeal. He's seen as gray but solid. The 57-year-old bureaucrat is not the first-rate economist that President Ernesto Zedillo Ponce de Leon is, so he'll have to surround himself with the Ivy League-trained technocrats who engineered a recovery following the 1994 devaluation. That reassures voters who believe the country needs continuity to reap the benefits of economic reform.

Although PRI loyalists have shown that they are content with their party's gradual move toward democracy, it may be a different story when Mexicans of all stripes turn out for the July 2, 2000 vote. Over the past decade, opposition politicians have secured 9 of Mexico's 31 governorships and hundreds of municipalities, as well as control of the lower house of congress. The opposition, quite understandably, contends that a changing of the guard at the top is now needed to achieve true democracy in Mexico. That change may some day occur. But in this national election, don't count the PRI out.

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