July 10, 1998

Ruling Party Defector Gives Mexican Opposition Party A Rare Victory

By Ken Guggenheim

MEXICO CITY _ Young, popular and ambitious, Ricardo Monreal Avila was just the candidate the leftist Democratic Revolution Party needed to win its first-ever state gubernatorial election.

There's just one problem: Monreal isn't a party member.

Monreal, a 38-year-old congressman and rising star in the long-governing Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, quit that party in February after being passed over for the gubernatorial nomination in the northern state of Zacatecas.

After his exit, PRI leaders said they had rejected him as a nominee because of ``indirect'' links to drug trafficking. They later backed away from the allegation.

At any rate, the spurned Monreal ran instead as the candidate for the leftist PRD even though he never formally joined the party. He wound up winning Sunday's election with about 43 percent of the vote.

It is hardly unusual for Mexican opposition parties to be populated by PRI defectors. The PRI had single-handed control over all levels of Mexican government until only recently, so most politicians were at some point affiliated with the party.

As for the PRD, it was founded by PRI defectors following the 1988 presidential election. After winning the mayorship in Mexico City last year, the party was in a strong position ahead of the 2000 presidential election. Candidates like Monreal offered the PRD a chance to increase its popularity, especially in areas where it has been traditionally weak, such as the north.

But some PRD members are concerned that the defectors will blur the differences between it and the PRI - even though so far that has not happened; the two parties have clearly distinct agendas.

In March, the PRD barred former Attorney General Ignacio Morales Lechuga of the PRI from seeking its nomination in the Gulf Coast state of Veracruz. The cost of that decision may be great: A recent poll shows the PRD running a distant third in that state's race behind the two other major parties.

In news conferences and interviews after winning the election, Monreal sounded at times more like an independent candidate than a PRD loyalist. He said he would have a multiparty Cabinet, choosing the best people available. He also spoke of his respect for President Ernesto Zedillo and said, ``I broke with the PRI, not with the president.''

But at a news conference in Mexico City, Monreal and PRD put the emphasis on their close relations and teamwork.

Sen. Amalia Garcia, a PRD leader, defended the choice of Monreal as candidate, saying that many of the most important figures in Mexican history were dissidents.

She said Monreal and the party have the same concerns - issues such as justice, equality and democracy. ``That's why we're together.''

Monreal credited the party with his victory, saying that even a capable and intelligent candidate couldn't win the election without the backing of a strong, solid party.

He also said that if he registers with any party, it will be with the PRD.

``Without a doubt, my fate and my destiny will be with the PRD,'' he said.

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