Mexico's PRI Feeling Rejuvenated at Massive Party Congress
Politics: New rules call for more women, young people in elective offices.
By JAMES F. SMITH
TIMES STAFF WRITER
TOLUCA, Mexico -- The Institutional Revolutionary Party on Tuesday adopted
a new set of social democratic principles and modern rules designed to
leadership and inject new blood into an organization that lost the Mexican presidency last year after 71 years in power.
The party, known as the PRI, embraced rules requiring that 50% of elective offices be held by women and 30% by people under age 30.
The changes marked an attempt by one of the longest-ruling parties of
the 20th century to revive its fortunes in the 21st. Many critics and commentators
the PRI would collapse after opposition candidate Vicente Fox won the presidency in July 2000. Fox's victory over the PRI is partly attributed to his support among
female and young Mexicans. If the PRI is to recover, it desperately needs to build a youthful following.
Another challenge is to avoid internal divisions that could lead to
the breakup of the party. A disintegrating PRI could make it harder for
Fox to govern; his party is in
the minority in both houses of Congress, and needs to be able to negotiate major reforms with a viable opposition.
To underscore the goals of youth and party cohesion, a rock band belted
out a rap rhythm behind its chorus of "unity, unity" at the congress' closing
ceremony in this
industrial city about 35 miles west of the capital.
Indeed, the design of the four-day convention appeared to help energize
the party, judging by the tumultuous final gathering of the 11,700 delegates.
A total of 23
forums held in five different cities debated key themes ranging from a new ethics code to new democratic methods of choosing party leaders.
One conclusion: The PRI should shift from being an all-embracing centrist party to becoming one with a more focused, center-left ideology.
That would position it in clear opposition to Fox's center-right National
Action Party, or PAN. It also would crowd the field on the left, which
is now occupied by the
smaller Democratic Revolution Party. The PRD, as it is known, broke from the PRI in 1987 partly over the larger party's shift at that time toward a more free-market
The rules adopted for the PRI leadership election in March clearly favor
Roberto Madrazo, the former governor of Tabasco state. Regarded by some
technocrats as a throwback to the old-style nationalist PRI, Madrazo has substantial support among grass-roots militants. They pushed hard during the congress, the
party's 18th since 1929, for rule changes that should make it easier for Madrazo to win the party presidency.
Judging by banners in the convention hall, he is the favorite.
The PRI suffered a string of embarrassing election defeats after it
lost the presidency, including the party's first gubernatorial losses in
Chiapas and Yucatan states.
But in recent months, the party has improved its vote share in several state and municipal elections.
Dulce Maria Sauri, the PRI president, told the closing gathering under
a huge white tarpaulin beside the party's Mexico state headquarters: "There
were voices saying
after July 2 [of last year] that we would disappear, or we would split or weaken. But here we are, united and working, resolved to correct our errors and to win
back our majority."
The convention acknowledged openly the PRI's reputation for corruption in recent years, one of the most frequently cited reasons for sentiment against the party.
Sauri said the willingness to confront the reasons for the PRI's loss of popularity was critical for its revival.
The PRI still holds the largest blocs in both the Chamber of Deputies
and the Senate, as well as a majority of municipal posts in the country
and more than half the
Party Secretary-General Rodolfo Echeverria said in an interview that
"this assembly opens up the possibilities for change," although he said
the reforms need to be
consolidated in the months and years ahead.
Echeverria said the mechanism used to hold the congress, in which about
1 million members in city and state meetings elected the delegates, itself
brought new energy
into the party after the presidential defeat.
The party was established by President Plutarco Elias Calles in 1929
to end the squabbling and violence that followed the Mexican Revolution
of 1910-17. The
party's principal role was to hand the presidency peacefully from one leader to another and avoid civil strife.
The new rules, Echeverria said, are designed to modernize the PRI into
a competitive organization that relies on its rank and file to shape the
party's direction, and no
longer merely take orders from the president's handpicked party hierarchy in Mexico City.
He said, for example, that a revamped and expanded national political
council of 600 members would have the power to shape party policy, not
the executive committee's decisions.
A 79-year-old PRI activist and former senator, retired Gen. Alonso Aguirre,
said his father was a general with legendary revolutionary leader Francisco
Villa, and had belonged to one of the scores of small parties that were brought together to create the PRI.
"There was a custom that the president set the direction for the party.
Now that we no longer have the presidency, we ourselves will have to set
Aguirre said. "That is a very positive change."