Mexico: Will The PRI Be Top Dog Again?

Postal worker Patricia Herrera Lopez was one of millions of Mexicans who voted in 2000 to elect President Vicente Fox, whose National Action Party (PAN) promised dramatic political and economic change after seven decades of rule by the corruption-plagued Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). But she says she'll vote for the PRI next time. "Under the PRI we lived much better. I was able to buy a house and get a car loan," says the 56-year-old grandmother. Today several family members are jobless, and government services have deteriorated. "I would have kept voting for the PAN if I had seen positive change, but I just don't see it."

Four years ago the PRI was thrown into turmoil by its defeat. Its leaders struggled to function in the opposition but were crippled by a $92 million fine for campaign financing violations that forced them to lay off two-thirds of the party's staff workers. In Congress, the PRI adopted a spoiler strategy, joining with the left-leaning Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) to block legislation, including Fox's tax, energy, and labor reforms.

Voting with the PAN

Today the PRI is back in fighting form. Since July the party has won four gubernatorial elections and the key mayoral vote in Tijuana. Now, PRI President Roberto Madrazo and his congressional leaders are working to shed their obstructionist image. They're voting with the PAN for bills that would ease fiscal pressures on the party that wins the 2006 presidential elections. "Madrazo is interested in having the ship in good shape if the PRI wins the election," says political scientist Federico Estévez of the Autonomous Technological Institute of Mexico. Even former President Carlos Salinas, though deeply unpopular, is working behind the scenes to bring the PRI back.

A PRI return to power is no longer inconceivable. While charismatic Mexico City Mayor Andrés Manuel López Obrador of the PRD is the most popular presidential candidate, two of his top aides face corruption charges. And although Madrazo carries heavy baggage as a former governor who abused campaign-spending limits to win office, his party fared well in a recent survey by pollster Consulta Mitofsky. Some 31% of respondents said they plan to vote for the PRI in 2006, vs. 20% for the PAN and 15% for the PRD. A survey by Latinobarómetro found that just 17% of Mexicans are satisfied with the Fox administration.

Fox's failure to generate growth and push through reforms is a boon for the PRI. "The PRI has enormous possibilities of returning to power if we can advance on reforms that show the PRI's ability to get things done," says PRI congressman Francisco Suárez Dávila. He and his colleagues recently helped push through public sector pension reform, which will save the government big outlays in future years. By yearend the PRI is expected to vote for a bill that could slash the corporate tax from 33% to 28%.

The PRI is not out of the woods. Business leaders, who blame Madrazo for scuttling a major tax overhaul in 2001 and 2003, believe his embrace of partial reforms is mere electoral opportunism. And Madrazo, who has feuded with other PRI leaders, runs the risk of splitting the party. In the end it will come down to votes from people such as postal worker Herrera. If her disillusionment with Fox is any indication, the PRI has a chance to recover the presidential chair it held for so long.

By Geri Smith in Mexico City

Edited by Rose Brady

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