Mexico's old ruling party shows resiliance in elections

Friday, July 11, 2003

MEXICO CITY -- Final vote counts Thursday in congressional elections confirmed setbacks for President Vicente Fox and showed that -- against all odds -- Mexico's old ruling party is very much alive three years after Fox ended its 71-year grip on power.

Sunday's election strengthened the former ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party's position as power broker in Mexico's lower house of Congress, and party leaders immediately signaled their willingness to negotiate with Fox's party to pass long-delayed reforms.

"The Mexican people have told the government and political parties to buckle down and get to work," said Carlos Jimenez, spokesman for the Institutional Revolutionary Party, also known as the PRI. "We have to translate this vote of confidence into action, and pass the reforms this country needs."

It was unclear exactly how many seats each party had, but a quick count shortly after the vote found gains for the PRI and losses for Fox's conservative National Action.

Three-hundred of Congress' 500 seats are directly elected, and electoral officials said Thursday that 163 of those seats would go to the former ruling party. National Action received 79 spots, and the leftist Democratic Revolution Party had 56.

There were no results in two congressional races, which were being contested.

The final 200 seats -- assigned to at-large candidates depending on the support their party received in the elections -- were expected to be announced Sunday.

The PRI, led by Roberto Madrazo, is now the decisive voice in what Fox can accomplish in the last three years of his term.

"Madrazo is now the shadow president, and Fox has lost all his political capital," said Federico Estevez, a political science professor at Mexico's Autonomous Technical Institute.

"There's no doubt (Madrazo) will call the shots on what alliances to make if he so chooses."

If a PRI-Fox alliance materializes, the president could achieve more as a lame duck than he did riding the wave of democracy in the first part of his term. And the PRI could lay the groundwork for a shot at an unprecedented return to power in 2006.

The other big gainer in Congress was the leftist Democratic Revolution Party, which appears to have nearly doubled its congressional delegation based largely on a reputation for PRI-style social and public works programs.

It's not exactly the way the transition to democracy was expected to work in July 2000, when Fox promised economic growth, a migration accord with the United States and the elimination of Mexico's age-old authoritarianism and corruption.

"There was a long-standing expectation, reinforced by Fox's victory, that the PRI was mostly a shell that was still standing because nobody had kicked the props out," Estevez said. "The belief was that it would implode, vanish and fall to the ground in a heap."

As it turns out, the party was stronger than imagined. Perhaps more important: Voters are tired of three years of inaction under Fox.

Jimenez says the party is willing to take up the president's three main proposals, all stalled in the divided Congress: labor, energy and tax reform. Surprisingly pragmatic, the PRI also doesn't rule out privatization and market-oriented reforms.

"We can't close ourselves off to private investment," the PRI spokesman said. "We have to break through these taboos. There is a globalized world out there, and we can't close our eyes to it."

It all hinges on Fox's willingness to recognize that his platforms haven't worked, Estevez said. "The really hard choice is on the National Action side, because they have to decide whether to accommodate the PRI."

The PRI faces the difficult task of shaking what its spokesman described as "the errors and inertia" of the past and widening its older, rural voter base. But reports of its death were exaggerated, he said.

"Many people forgot the party's structure, its people," Jimenez said, describing the networks built over 70 years of patronage programs. "In midterm elections, hard-line voters are the most important, and we've got more hard-line votes than anyone."

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