Maverick Challenges Mexican Ruling Party
By John Ward Anderson
After all, President Ernesto Zedillo and other honchos of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) were boasting of a new spirit of openness in the long-ruling, often dictatorial party as a way of stopping its decade-long decline at the polls. And Monreal, a young, good-looking party stalwart, had impeccable credentials: 20-year party member, former federal senator, two-term congressman and deputy chairman of the party's legislative bloc in the lower house of Congress.
But last February, after months of barnstorming and building grass-roots support in this rural central Mexican state, Monreal discovered that the fix was in, and he was out. Following long-standing tradition -- and reflecting what analysts say are the PRI's worst autocratic instincts -- the current governor of Zacatecas and his predecessor handpicked Jose Marco Antonio Olvera, 47, a former federal congressman and president of the state PRI, as their party's nominee.
It may be a decision they regret, and soon.
Saying he was robbed of the nomination because of the party's corrupt, incestuous inner workings, Monreal, 37, bolted from the PRI in a fury and easily snagged the nominations of the leftist Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD) -- formed 10 years ago by disenchanted PRI members -- and several smaller parties. Today, many public opinion polls give him a substantial lead over Olvera in the July 5 governor's race.
"Ricardo Monreal believed he had a good chance to get the PRI nomination through transparent, open politics, the way President Zedillo implied things were going to work this year," said George W. Grayson, a Mexico scholar at Virginia's College of William & Mary. "But he got stiff-armed out of the race, so he built an alliance and got the PRD nomination, and the initial polls show he's going to blow the doors off the PRI."
Zacatecas -- the capital has the same name as the state -- historically is one of the PRI's most loyal strongholds; losing it, especially at the start of the 1998 election season, would be a stunning blow to the world's longest continuously ruling political party. Voters will elect 10 state governors between July and November this year.
The cumulative results will foreshadow the presidential race in 2000, when opposition parties are expected to have one of their best shots at winning Mexico's highest office in more than 70 years. An opposition victory could have a dramatic impact on Mexico's trade and economic policies and its relations with the United States.
In an effort to put a tourniquet on its hemorrhaging support among voters fed up with party corruption and the PRI's well-documented history of rigging elections, PRI leaders two years ago approved reforms to make elections freer and fairer. The reforms may have shored up PRI support, but they also vitalized opposition parties.
Last summer, the PRI lost its majority in Mexico's lower house of Congress -- the Chamber of Deputies -- for the first time since the party was founded in 1929. And it lost the first-ever election for mayor of Mexico City, considered the country's most important elected office after the president, to the PRD's Cuauhtemoc Cardenas.
According to public opinion surveys, many of the themes from last year's elections continue to resonate with voters, particularly concern about Mexico's declining economy.
Political analysts say that in addition to a possible opposition victory in Zacatecas, the right-center National Action Party (PAN) has a good chance of capturing the governor's mansion Aug. 2 in the predominantly urban state of Aguascalientes. The PAN was the first opposition party to win a governor's race, in Baja California Norte in 1989, and currently holds six of Mexico's 31 state governorships. The PRD has never won a governor's contest.
Despite its flagging fortunes, the PRI appears to be solidly in the lead in the other eight governor's races this year, analysts said, at least partly because leaders learned a lesson from the Zacatecas debacle and opened up the candidate selection process, rather than leaving the decision to party power brokers. For instance, in Chihuahua, where the PRI staged an open primary to choose its candidate for the July 5 race, it has a good chance of reclaiming a state from PAN control for the first time ever, political observers said.
But today, all eyes are on Zacatecas, where the most recent polls show Monreal ahead of Olvera by a range of 4 to 25 points. Three other candidates trail far behind. Some analysts warned, however, that the polls are biased in favor of urban, wealthier people, and do not reflect the traditional support and organizational strength of the PRI among the state's rural campesinos, or subsistence farmers, who dominate the electorate.
Others said the PRI was still capable of dirty tricks to steal the election. Monreal has warned his former party colleagues publicly that, as a onetime insider, he knows all the tricks and will not tolerate a stolen election.
"If the PRI loses Zacatecas, as it seems they will, the ruling party will really be hurt," and some party insiders undoubtedly want to rig the results, said Jose Chavez Jaimes, a political columnist with El Universal newspaper. However, he said, "If they spoil the Zacatecas elections, the state will burst into flames. People are no longer willing to take electoral fraud with crossed arms."
But Pedro de Leon Sanchez, current head of the PRI in Zacatecas, said Monreal "is talking about fraud because he's anticipating that he's not going to win legitimately" and is laying the groundwork for claiming the election was stolen.
As for Monreal's claims that the PRI nomination was unfairly denied him by an undemocratic system, de Leon Sanchez said, "He was the beneficiary of these mechanisms for a long time, but when he doesn't personally benefit from it, he says, 'Hold on! This isn't good.' "
In an interview, Monreal said he belongs to no party but accepted the leftists' nomination because it was the result of "an internal, democratic process of the PRD." He said the ruling party, in contrast, "has abandoned the principles of defending the campesinos, of defending the teachers, of defending the popular economy."
"It is a party that has completed its historic cycle," Monreal said. "In Zacatecas, we're going to write the PRI's obituary."
ELECTION SEASON IN MEXICO
Mexico's opposition controls six of the nation's 31 states, plus Mexico City, and has a chance to win governorships from the ruling party in a few more states in elections this summer and fall.
Election schedule for states with gubernatorial, state congressional and municipal races this year:
July 5: Chihuahua, Durango, Zacatecas
Aug. 2: Aguascalientes, Veracruz, Oaxaca
Oct. 25: Tamaulipas
Nov. 8: Sinaloa, Tlaxcala, Puebla
Of the 10 states with upcoming elections, nine are now controlled by the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI); Chihuahua is controlled by the PAN.
Four other states -- Yucatan, Baja California Norte, Chiapas and Michoacan -- have state congressional and municipal elections.
SOURCE: Staff reports
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