The Washington Post
Sunday, February 24, 2002; Page A20

Ousted Mexican Party Choosing New Leader

Former Governors Vie to Guide PRI

By Kevin Sullivan
Washington Post Foreign Service

MEXICO CITY, Feb. 23 -- Mexico's oldest and largest political party, the Institutional Revolutionary Party, is set to elect a new leader on Sunday, hoping to
remake its tattered image after being dumped in 2000 after 71 years of unbroken rule.

In a boisterous election that has attracted unprecedented attention, several million voters will decide between former state governors Roberto Madrazo and Beatriz
Paredes. Each claims to represent the future of a party that is trying hard to distance itself from the corruption and authoritarian excesses of its past. Recent polls have
shown the race too close to call.

The election is critical because it could help revitalize the party, known by its Spanish initials as PRI, at a time when Mexico's president, Vicente Fox, of the National
Action Party, is increasingly vulnerable. Despite dramatically improving Mexico's image abroad since unseating the PRI, Fox has been largely unable to keep his
promises on such domestic matters as Indian rights, fiscal reform and economic progress.

PRI officials believe they can offer a fresh alternative to voters in critical midterm legislative elections next year and in the presidential election in 2006.

Neither Madrazo nor Paredes represents a radical new direction for the PRI. Both have pledged to rededicate the party to the problems of average Mexicans by
streamlining its bloated bureaucracy and better coordinating its legislative efforts as the chief opposition party.

Even the format of Sunday's election is designed to present a new, more democratic face. For the first time, the party is opening its leadership election to all Mexican
voters, rather than just party members. The campaign has more closely resembled a U.S. presidential primary than the rubber-stamp leadership races of the PRI's
past, and the election is expected to attract as many as 3 million voters.

Despite its loss in 2000, the PRI remains a powerful force in Mexican politics. It controls 17 of the country's 31 state governorships and has a majority in 16 state
legislatures. It also controls half the country's 2,433 municipalities, 60 of the 128 seats in the Senate and 208 of the 500 seats in the lower house of Congress -- the
largest single-party representation in the federal legislature.

As Fox's public honeymoon has faded, the PRI has slowly but steadily regained ground. In the 2000 elections, the PRI won 36.1 percent of the votes cast,
compared with 42.5 percent won by Fox's National Action Party, or PAN. In the 14 state elections held since then, the PRI has won 41.8 percent of the votes cast,
compared with 27.6 percent for the PAN.

The PRI has spent enormous sums on advertising for this race. Radio spots have tried to appeal more broadly to women and young people, who abandoned the
party in droves to vote for Fox. The ads have tried to reinvigorate the party faithful with the slogan, which rhymes in Spanish, "What happens to the PRI happens to

The slogan took on new urgency recently when Fox's government announced that it was investigating allegations that officials at Mexico's government-owned energy
monopoly, Petroleos Mexicanos, or Pemex, diverted about $120 million to the 2000 presidential campaign of PRI candidate Francisco Labastida.

PRI officials said the investigation amounted to a "declaration of war" by Fox against the PRI. They said they would unite to block all of Fox's initiatives in Congress.
Paredes, a top official in Labastida's campaign, spent several days fending off questions and denying that money was improperly diverted from Pemex.

The whiff of scandal intensified the PRI's resolve to polish its image, and the person elected Sunday will become the chief public face of that effort. If the new party
president oversees a successful PRI campaign in next year's congressional elections, he or she automatically becomes a strong contender for the PRI's presidential
nomination in 2006.

Madrazo and Paredes have blanketed the country with speeches, rallies and television and radio appearances, touting themselves as reformers. But in echoes of
old-style PRI campaigns, they have accused each other of electoral dirty tricks. They called each other liars in a nasty exchange on live television this week.

Madrazo, 49, the former governor of Tabasco, and Paredes, 48, the former governor of Tlaxcala, are different in many ways. Madrazo is a smooth insider with long
and deep connections to some of Mexico's wealthiest and most powerful players. Paredes wears the brightly colored dresses of Mexico's indigenous people and has
made her name fighting illiteracy and malnutrition among the nation's poorest people.

Madrazo's career has been dogged by allegations of old-style machine politics in Tabasco, where critics said he ran an authoritarian government that protected its
friends and engaged in dirty election practices. Paredes has a reputation for cleaner and less flamboyant politics.

Madrazo was considered by many to be a political goner after he lost the PRI's presidential primary in 1999 to Labastida, who eventually lost to Fox. That image
was reinforced when his handpicked successor in Tabasco won the governor's election last year, only to have his victory overturned by federal election officials who
ruled that the vote had been tainted by fraud.

Paredes has had a much steadier rise to power, first as a member of Congress, then governor, high-ranking federal bureaucrat and ambassador to Cuba. She was
president of the lower house of Congress until she took a leave to run for the PRI presidency.

                                               © 2002