- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 29, 2006

MEXICO CITY — Stunned by the political strength of leftist candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador in the presidential election Sunday, the handsome, young and conservative governor of Mexico’s wealthiest state is preparing to relaunch the once all-powerful Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, in time for the next presidential race.

“It is time to renew and restructure the party,” said Mexico state Gov. Enrique Pena Nieto, who at 39 is one of the country’s youngest governors and said to be one of his party’s top choices in the 2012 election.

“Either we reform or we die,” he said simply.

The neo-liberal PRI ruled Mexico for more than 70 years, sometimes brutally quelling political opposition. It has an immense political machine that stretches across the country and its working, elite and rural classes.

But by 2000 it had sunk under the weight of its own inability to adapt to sociopolitical changes and to counter an ever-deepening corruption, and lost the presidential election to Vicente Fox of the centrist National Action Party (PAN).

PRI’s candidate on the ballot, Roberto Madrazo, has failed to shake off accusations of nepotism and corruption and of belonging to a party that most Mexicans shrug off as a political dinosaur.

“We have seen a lot of people leaving the party” to join Mr. Lopez Obrador’s Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD) and the centrist PAN, now led by Felipe Calderon, Mr. Pena Nieto said.

Mr. Lopez Obrador and Mr. Calderon are the front-runners in the presidential race.

Sitting in his offices in Mexico City, Mr. Pena Nieto is a perfectly groomed example of what his party advocates: private-sector business, the North American Free Trade Agreement and foreign investment.

Mexico state, which surrounds the capital, is one of the country’s largest and wealthiest, with considerable financial and political resources.

But Mexican voters appear fed up with politically conservative governments unable to stem the widening income gap, the lack of jobs for the country’s 40 million poor, corruption and lawlessness.

Millions have emigrated to the United States in search of jobs and better pay. Those who remain are making their frustrations known by turning out in the tens of thousands to support the nationalist rhetoric of Mr. Lopez Obrador.

Jorge Cervantes, a 62-year-old surgeon who lives in Mexico City, said the PRI needs to “get rid of that dirty image they have.”

“I think that the party is about to die. I hope so,” he said.

Despite the PRI’s close relationship with the United States, something Dr. Cervantes supports, the party ran the country like a dictatorship.

New blood would be needed to bring the party back to life, he said.

Mr. Pena Nieto agreed, saying, “There should be a purification, a sifting-out of the party.” He said there is a need for “new faces, new speeches” and that he would consider changing the name of the party.

“We will make an agreement among the powers inside the party, including the 17 PRI governors — and we all have a long-term vision — and with a consensus we will push our followers to build up the party,” he said.

Much of the PRI’s future will depend on the winner of the presidential race, said top Mexican political analyst and historian Leo Zuckerman.

If conservative Mr. Calderon wins, the PRI will be able to hold its party together and have a strong position in Congress from where it will negotiate with the government as an opposition party.

But if leftist Mr. Lopez Obrador wins, the PRI could lose more of its members, Mr. Zuckerman said.

“That is the major threat, because the PRD is going to try to win over some of their senators in order to have a majority in Congress.

“It is important how the PRI governors react. They are not interested in having a diminished PRI because people like Mr. Pena are thinking of running for the presidency in 2012,” Mr. Zuckerman said.

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