- The Washington Times - Monday, October 11, 2004

MEXICO CITY — Mexico’s political dinosaurs are on the rise again. The Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) — which ruled for 71 years before getting thrown into disarray after President Vicente Fox knocked it from power four years ago — has recovered.

And once again, it is becoming tough to beat at the ballot box.

Mr. Fox’s failure to live up to the lofty promises of his historic run to the presidency have pushed some voters back to PRI, whose leaders have been nicknamed dinosaurs because of their adherence to old-guard politics.

Some say they just want to go back to what’s familiar.

“Change, change, change. Everything is about ‘change,’” Raul Hernandez, a 38-year-old security guard, said, repeating Mr. Fox’s campaign motto.

“The PRI doesn’t need to change. They know what they want.”

Part of the party’s success has been the grass-roots support that it has built up since its creation in 1929. Mexico’s two other main parties, the conservative National Action Party and the left-leaning Democratic Revolution Party, rely on strongholds, but have yet to build up the nationwide base that the PRI enjoys.

“The PRI no longer dominates, but in close elections, its large base never fails,” said Salvador Garcia, a newspaper columnist and radio analyst. “All other parties have failed to mobilize a base. They missed a chance to beat a weak PRI.”

The party is getting stronger with each election victory. It produced a stunning win in Tijuana on Aug. 1, where Jorge Hank Rhon, the billionaire son of a former PRI kingmaker, overcame a double-digit deficit in polls to reclaim the mayor’s office for his party for the first time since 1989.

The PRI also withstood a serious challenge from an alliance of opposition parties to hold power in Oaxaca. In July, it retained governorships in Chihuahua and Durango, both in the industrial north — once a bastion for Mr. Fox’s National Action Party, or PAN.

The PRI eked out a victory on Sept. 5 to hold onto the governorship in one of its key states, Veracruz, on the Gulf Coast. It then went on to win back mayoral posts in two state capitals where it had lost nine years ago, although its overall share of the vote continues to slide in Oaxaca and it lost control of the Chiapas state legislature for the first time.

The party also has the most seats in Congress and, last year, wrested control of the wealthy border state of Nuevo Leon from the PAN while holding governorships in Sonora, Campeche and Colima.

“Are they on their way back to the presidency? I’d say they are strong and getting stronger,” Mr. Garcia said. “That becomes more clear with each election.”

The PRI is populist, fiercely nationalistic and left-leaning, but stands more for whatever platform will win an election than for any ideology. The party controlled Mexico’s presidency from 1929 until 2000, often relying on handout programs that opponents called vote-buying.

It was formed to unite a country torn apart by revolution, but decades later, voters became fed up with its corruption and undemocratic ways.

After its loss to Mr. Fox, the PRI talked about reforming itself, but there have been few ideological changes. After a nasty primary fight in 2001, Roberto Madrazo, a former governor of Tabasco, emerged as the party’s director and likely candidate for 2006 presidential elections.

Mr. Madrazo specializes in organizing and energizing the party’s base and makes no apologies for being a PRI traditionalist.

“He represents the old face,” Mr. Garcia said. “The archaic PRI.”

Armand Peschard-Sverdrup, of the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the Oaxaca election was close because the anti-Madrazo wing of the party sided with the opposition.

But Mr. Madrazo also has flexed his muscle in Congress, persuading party legislators to back reforms that the old party would have done its best to defeat.

“Clearly, all the little election victories and his ability to strengthen his position within his own party make Madrazo a very strong presidential candidate,” Mr. Peschard-Sverdrup said.

During his state-of-the-nation address Sept. 1, Mr. Fox urged Mexicans not to give up on democracy.

“The message from Fox was clear,” Mr. Garcia said. “A PRI return to power is a democratic failure.”

A survey by the independent polling firm Latinobarometro found that just 17 percent of Mexicans are satisfied with the change that Mr. Fox’s government has ushered in since 2000. Many of the president’s top reforms have stalled in the PRI-dominated Congress.

PAN election director Carlos Sanchez said the PRI has done little more than hold on to the governorships that it was supposed to win.

“On the national level, we remain the preferred party of change,” he said.

And the PRI still faces another challenge in the battle for the presidency. Mexican law bars Mr. Fox from seeking re-election, and most polls show the front-runner so far is Mexico City Mayor Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador of the Democratic Revolution Party.

The mayor is popular in the capital, where he has championed generous pension programs for retirees and other populist initiatives.

“He’s done much better than Fox,” said Marcelino Martinez, 44, a Mexico City mechanic. “Fox talks, Lopez Obrador acts.”

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