The Dallas Morning News
Monday, May 17, 2004

PRI's comeback hopes dealt a blow

Ex-ruling party losing 1st in series of Mexican elections this year

By ALFREDO CORCHADO / The Dallas Morning News

MEXICO CITY President Vicente Fox's conservative National Action Party was coasting toward victory in a key city Monday, staving off the return of the former longtime ruling party, which is hoping to make a comeback in state and local elections this year.

Mr. Fox's party, known as the PAN for its initials in Spanish, was set to hold onto Mérida, capital of Yucatán state, with about 51 percent of the vote, according to partial election results.

The Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, had about 43 percent of Sunday's vote, with more than 90 percent of all ballots counted. Smaller parties had the rest of the vote.

The PAN was also ahead in most of the 106 municipal elections in which partial results were available.

Mérida, with a large middle class, is hardly a bellwether for Mexico or the bare-knuckled electoral fights between now and the 2006 presidential election.

It does, however, offer valuable lessons for the PRI in the 13 other states that hold elections this year, including 10 that select governors, analysts said. One of those lessons concerns picking its candidates.

The PRI, which had held the presidency for 71 years until its 2000 ouster, chose former Yucatán Gov. Víctor Cervera Pacheco, considered a "dinosaur" because of his age and hard-line tactics.

By selecting Mr. Cervera Pacheco, 68, "the PRI reinforced its image as a Jurassic Park full of dinosaurs," said George Grayson, professor at the College of William & Mary in Virginia. "At the same time, it blocked the advancement of a younger cadre in Mérida."

Mr. Cervera Pacheco alleged balloting fraud on Sunday and vowed to challenge the results with state electoral officials.

Despite the apparent Mérida win, Mr. Fox's party isn't expected to do so well down the road. The PRI, according to analysts and early polls, could win as many as eight of the 10 gubernatorial elections, including the northern states of Durango and Chihuahua.

In nearby Zacatecas, a leftist party, the Party of the Democratic Revolution, is expected to retain that state's governorship this summer.

If the PRI were to win most of this year's races, it would represent a huge boost for party president Roberto Madrazo, the PRI's likely presidential candidate in 2006.

"Madrazo will walk away strengthened," said Armand Peschard-Sverdrup, director of the Mexico Project at the Center for Strategic International Studies, or CSIS, which is sponsoring an electoral analysis prepared by Mr. Grayson this month.

"These elections will be about perception more than anything," Mr. Peschard-Sverdrup said. "If people perceive that the PRI is making a comeback, that will be important. Madrazo will position himself as the guy to beat in 2006."

Frustration has been growing among Mexicans that a more open democracy, represented by Mr. Fox's win in 2000, has failed to improve their lives. A poll by the Mexico City newspaper El Universal found that 59 percent of those polled were unsatisfied with democracy, while 33 percent were satisfied.

"Democracy has meant more poverty, more political infighting, and more migration to the United States," said Ángel Abelardo Ochoa, a cook in Mexico City. "The promises of democracy have been empty."