May 21, 1999

Mexico's Ruling Party Approves First Primary Elections in 70 Years

By Adolfo Garza

MEXICO CITY - The 70-year-old tradition of outgoing Mexican presidents naming their successors has been declared officially dead. But the question remains: How democratic will the ruling party's new approach be?

The ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, approved its first primary elections to choose a presidential nominee, setting up an open campaign period and secret balloting to elect its candidate for the 2000 presidential elections.

Opposition parties said old habits would die hard, and predicted the old forces of authority in the party - the president, power brokers, special interest and union groups - would still control the nomination.

``I still think (President Ernesto) Zedillo will be the one who decides who's going to be the PRI candidate,'' said opposition party Mayor Cuauhtemoc Cardenas of Mexico City.

Analysts say Zedillo still wields enormous influence, and Zedillo himself said that while he hasn't decided who to support for president, he may make a public endorsement.

The image of a new, more democratic party wasn't helped Monday when party leader Jose Antonio Gonzalez Fernandez distributed a speech thanking members of a party committee for voting in favor of the proposed primary rules before the vote had taken place.

Of the Political Committee's 331 members, 307 voted for the primary system, 21 for holding a convention and three abstained.

Perhaps the biggest surprise at Monday's assembly was Gonzalez Fernandez' admission that past presidents picked nominees, rather than the party conventions called to rubber-stamp those decision. The ruling party has held the presidency for 70 years without interruption.

The open primary seems to favor old-guard candidates who have been openly campaigning in recent months, such as Tabasco state Gov. Roberto Madrazo or former Puebla Gov. Manuel Bartlett.

But the new rules will force them to halt their campaigns. Contenders are forbidden to campaign before Aug. 1 - when a three-month campaign season will open - under threat of being excluded from the primary.

Other possible candidates include Veracruz Gov. Miguel Aleman and Interior Secretary Francisco Labastida.

The rules place a still-unspecified limit on spending, ban the use of government funds for campaigns, and require potential candidates to resign any government post by June 15.

Gonzalez Fernandez also proposed all the trappings of democracy supervised election campaigns and transparent ballot boxes - for the Nov. 7 primary vote. The winning primary candidate would be officially declared Nov. 20, ahead of the July 2000 presidential elections.

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