Choice or corruption?

Mexico's PRI holds its first-ever primary and -- surprise! -- the insider candidate wins.

By Scarlet Pruitt

Published November 10, 1999 5:00PM (EST)

When ruling party candidate Francisco Labastida Ochoa trounced his nearest competitor in Sunday's primary elections, it marked a watershed event in Mexico's political history. Not because Labastida -- the widely perceived official candidate of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) -- defeated his nearest opponent by a landslide, but because the primary actually took place.

Sunday's elections marked the first time in the party's 70-year rule that it voted on a presidential candidate, as opposed to having the candidate hand-picked by the president in a process called the dedazo, literally "the big finger."

Although President Ernesto Zedillo rejected the official dedazo when he announced a few months ago that he was stepping out of the candidate-selection process to open the way for a broader democracy, many Mexicans perceived Labastida as the president's favorite, leaving little uncertainty about his eventual win.

Although the PRI's first primary election marks an important change from politics as usual, most observers believe it represents more of a gesture toward democracy than a strong, decisive move in that direction. While outside observers laud Mexico's increasing openness, complaints of fraud and corruption persisted throughout the primary.

Labastida, the former Sinaloa state governor and interior secretary -- a traditional steppingstone to the presidency -- faced little real competition. His closest rival, PRI rebel candidate Roberto Madrazo Pintado, ex-governor of the state of Tabasco, began a fierce TV campaign that lost speed toward Election Day. Other candidates included former Puebla governor and old-school party insider Manuel Bartlett, and ex-PRI president Humberto Roque.

The real match was played out between Labastida and Madrazo, who, despite the lopsided results, staged a campaign never seen before in Mexico. Madrazo raised eyebrows across the nation by lambasting the PRI's "party machinery," which has effectively guaranteed the party's continuous success through corruption and coercion, making it the world's most enduring ruling party. Touting his independence, Madrazo also took on Labastida's status as the perceived official candidate, attacking what he called thinly disguised presidential favoritism. In the end, it backfired.

Labastida walked away with 273 of the 300 electoral districts, leaving Madrazo with only 21, Bartlett with six and Roque with none. Paradoxically, the vote totals don't support Labastida's electoral district sweep. While Labastida gained 91 percent of the districts against Madrazo's 7, Labastida only gained 58 percent of the vote, whereas Madrazo drummed up a significant 31 percent.

The PRI was prepared for heavy turnout. Thousands of voting booths were installed throughout the country, open to all registered voters, regardless of party affiliation; election observers were put into place to assure that there were no irregularities; and four candidates waged a two-month-long official campaign. But in the end, the voters chose not to change.

What happened? The election results seem to reflect both typical PRI corruption and genuine voter choice. Clearly, the PRI, while striving for democracy, has had a hard time changing its stripes. Reports of corruption circulated throughout the primary campaign. Everything from groceries, roof tiles and promises of government aid were reported to have been offered up to assure votes for Labastida. In addition, the tradition of the "cargada," or political rush to support the president's chosen candidate, remained in place despite Zedillo's purported indifference, bolstering Labastida's power base.

"The vote was just among the priistas," says Mexico City pundit Alejandro Angeles, using the common term for PRI supporters. "The PRI as a group wanted to make a statement on how to do the elections the best way, without breaking the party. Each individual priista had to discipline himself [by voting for Labastida] to keep a piece of the power pie."

But the vote also reflected the public's fear of change after 70 years of PRI rule, analysts say. The economic crises that tend to plague Mexico every six years, in tandem with presidential elections, no doubt played a part. The public believes that the only way to avoid these devastating crises is to assure a smooth transition of power, perhaps one that they didn't see possible under the fiery Madrazo.

And no doubt memories of the disastrous 1994 changeover still linger. The election process included two assassinations -- that of PRI candidate Luis Donaldo Colosio and PRI president Jose Francisco Ruiz Massieu. Then there was the debacle of the December 1994 peso devaluation, which sent former President Carlos Salinas into self-imposed exile in Ireland. Many Mexicans are still dealing with the economic effects of the peso crash and are not prepared to weather another crisis.

From this perspective, perhaps Labastida looked like the safer choice. His platform included more spending on social programs for the working class and gradual reforms to make the PRI less corrupt. Upon winning the primary, Labastida declared to much fanfare, "The new PRI born tonight is far from the path of Salinas. This new PRI is recuperating from the ideals of Colosio and is promising to use power to serve the people."

Madrazo, on the other hand, proposed sweeping reforms that would wrench power from the ruling party elite and perhaps create internal party ruptures. If the PRI was split by Madrazo, that would surely leave the party open to the opposition in next July's presidential race. Most analysts never saw Madrazo as a true threat, however, assuming that he was lobbying for his own power position after the elections.

"I am sure we will see Governor or Senator Madrazo next year," says Angeles.

Labastida's opposition rivals in the summer election include the conservative National Action Party (PAN) candidate, Vicente Fox, and the left-leaning Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) leader, former Mexico City Mayor Cuauhtemoc Cardenas. Fox, former governor of Guanajuato and the strongest opposition candidate, began campaigning nearly two years ago and swept his party's primary uncontested.

His combination of business know-how -- earned when he was head of Coca-Cola exports in Mexico -- and sometimes flamboyant and independent style, have made him a favorite among voters who seek some change, but not too much. The PAN platform ensures that economic policies instilled by PRI technocrats, including pro-business policies, deregulation and free trade, will not be washed away under new leadership.

Cardenas, on the other hand, has his sights set on broad social programs. Son of the popular former President Lazaro Cardenas, who gained support for his historic land reforms in the late-1930s, Cuauhtemoc Cardenas has already run for president twice before. His 1988 bid was widely seen as stolen from him by the PRI, when the computer tallying election results mysteriously malfunctioned while Cardenas was holding his own, only to be repaired with Salinas far in the lead.

Neither Fox nor Cardenas, however, is considered strong enough to beat the PRI. The PAN and PRD's failure to form an opposition alliance due to ideological differences and individual grandstanding has reduced their chances to almost zero. The unlikely allies actually held talks to explore a common-front opposition, but they fell apart over politics and personalities.

No matter the cause, while the opposition parties battle one other, the PRI gets to plot its course serenely. The day after the primary, PRI national president Jose Antonio Gonzalez trumpeted the party's ability to feature a primary and to emerge from it intact.

"The PAN and the PRD were wrong to not have confidence in the people," Gonzalez said. "There are those that remember how they selected their candidates: one by self-promotion and the other by self-design -- the PRI trusted in the people, made a decision to democratize and here are the results."

Following the primary, Zedillo referred to the long-held practice of the dedazo, holding out his index finger and proclaiming, "There is one [finger] that is obsolete." Then, sticking up his thumb, he declared that now, "This is the good one."

Scarlet Pruitt

Scarlet Pruitt is the editor of Business Mexico magazine.

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