The Miami Herald
January 18, 2002

'Spoiler' in Mexico's old ruling party may yet rule

 Herald World Staff

 MEXICO CITY -- At the beginning of 2001, Roberto Madrazo was a political has-been, blamed by the faithful in the Institutional Revolutionary Party for ending their seven-decade iron grip on the presidency. In a few weeks, he could become the second most powerful man in Mexico after President Vicente Fox.

 Since losing the presidency in 2000, the PRI has been in disarray, but it remains Mexico's largest political party.

 Madrazo has outmaneuvered party rivals by pushing through rules in November that almost guarantee he will take over the party's reins after Feb. 24 leadership elections. It is a clear indication he is back -- in a big way.

 Standing in Madrazo's way is one person, House Speaker Beatriz Paredes, who filed her uphill candidacy on the last day, Jan. 12. If Madrazo wins as expected, he could not only give the splintered PRI a strong and single voice, but from the sidelines could effectively veto or alter many important reforms in Mexico.


 At 49, Madrazo is very much in the mold of the old-style PRI party bosses who ruled this country for decades: a self-proclaimed nationalist, wary of globalization and deeply suspicious about Mexico's embrace of the free-market policies espoused by the United States.

 He offers only qualified support for the North American Free Trade Agreement, the 1994 accord with Canada and the United States, known as NAFTA.

 ``I do not propose returning to the old schemes that have been surpassed, but I think we must have a strong state as a social pledge because the market economy does not recognize social inequalities,'' Madrazo said in a recent interview.

 ``You see that in Argentina, in Venezuela, in Brazil, with the favelas [slums] that grow in an impressive way . . . all because the market economy does not read this, that responsibility belongs to the state.''

 An ex-governor of the southern state of Tabasco, Madrazo counts on support from the old guard long associated with state corruption and questionable elections. His election in 1995 was marked by controversy that blossomed into a national scandal on campaign financing.

 The election in 2000 that got his handpicked successor elected in Tabasco was also marred by controversy.

 ``He is an interesting, canny, savvy mix of the old and the new -- the old ways of doing politics with the new way of marketing them,'' said Denise Dresser, a political
 scientist at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. ``I think he talks the talk of a democratic leader, but I don't think he truly is one. I don't think he is
 committed to democracy as a way to exercise power.''


 Madrazo has been considered politically finished many times. But he has come back to haunt rivals who thought they were rid of him.

 ``In politics, one is never dead. You always have a chance to remake your politics and your strategy,'' Madrazo said. ``Victories are not forever nor defeats eternal.''

 Tall and thin with a perfectly trimmed mustache, Madrazo is both gentleman and bulldog.

 When necessary, he favors the Mexican tradition of backroom deals. But he is not shy about attacking rivals in public.

 Madrazo shocked party members in 1999 by openly seeking to be its presidential candidate, when sitting presidents had always named their successor. His savage
 attacks on PRI candidate Francisco Labastida split his party and paved the way for Fox to become the first opposition president in modern Mexican history.

 When Fox took office, he promised a new era of democracy in Mexico.

 The disgraced PRI, long associated with official state corruption, returned to the dynamic of its founding decades ago. It has become a collection of regional strongmen and powerful players in the congress but lacking national leadership and a clear identity.

 However, Fox's National Action Party remains divided and unable to build on his historic election. Many Fox initiatives have gone nowhere, partly because there is no united PRI with which he can negotiate to pass a sweeping tax reform or dozens of other pressing reforms.

 ``Fox sees [Madrazo] as someone who could lead the PRI and someone to deal with,'' said José Antonio Crespo, a political analyst in Mexico City.

 ``Madrazo may be the only leader within the PRI able to take the reins and offer a singular voice.''

 Counting on Madrazo, who openly expresses his desire to be Mexico's next president, holds risks if Fox's party slips in next year's congressional mid-term elections.

 ``He could obstruct the second half of Fox's [six-year] term or sell him support at a very high price,'' Crespo said.

                                    © 2002