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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Mexican Opposition in Disarray

MEXICO CITY -- As the governing Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, sweeps to power with a good showing in the presidential vote and a strong representation in the next legislature, analysts are concerned that the overwhelming result may cloud the future of multiparty politics in Mexico.

Mexico has a long history of nominal opposition parties but none had ever been considered a realistic alternative to the PRI monopoly on government. That was supposed to change this year.

All but the most extreme elements of the fractious left had been united under the banner of the Democratic Revolutionary Party, or PRD.

Their candidate, Cuauhtemoc Cardenas, son of Mexico's most revered 20th-century president, was expected to have long coattails, carrying into the Congress candidates who would express the poor, rural South's disenchantment with the radical free-market reforms of the past decade. The campaign appeared to be laying the groundwork for a Mexican version of a social democratic party.

The conservative National Action Party, or PAN entered the race in the strongest position of its 55-year history, with three state governorships and a glib, colorful litigator as its standard bearer.

Diego Fernandez de Cevallos moved into first place in many polls after he outshone his rivals in Mexico's first-ever televised presidential candidates' debate. PRI activists in PAN-governed states had even begun to speak of "alternancia," the idea of political parties taking turns in power.

Against these two apparently strong contenders, PRI, shocked by the March 23 assassination of its chosen candidate, was forced to run a substitute whose selection had deeply divided the ruling party.

This was the opposition's best shot at the presidency.

It missed.

"Six years of clamoring for change have done nothing to affect the political system," said writer and social critic Homero Aridjis.

But the heaviest burden for change will fall on PRD.

"This is going to lead the PRD to an enormous amount of soul-searching," said political analyst Denise Dresser. "There will be a tremendous questioning of Cuauhtemoc Cardenas' leadership."

Cardenas, widely believed to have been cheated of the presidency by vote-fraud six years ago, has refused to compromise or negotiate with the government in any election since. As a result, while PAN has made deals that gave the party the first opposition governorships of this century, the PRD has been able to defend victories in only a few town halls.

Many analysts expect a coup within the PRD that will oust Cardenas. The question would then become whether the PRD can survive without his moral leadership. "Is it a real party or a following of yet another 'caudillo' [political boss] in Mexican history?" Dresser asked.

If the PRD falls apart, it will leave the 17 percent of Mexicans who voted for Cardenas without a political voice, a prospect that deeply worries many Mexicans.

While the PRD has publicly insisted it lost only because of electoral fraud, PAN has emphasized questions of fairness in the overall political system and questioned its own role in the defeat. PAN activists acknowledge the need for change within the party, and if it is to effect such change, it must better promote its achievements and improve the quality of its candidates, according to analysts. The party must also fight a perception that it is is aloof and insensitive, particularly to the poor.

But above all, PAN must govern better after it wins, observers said.

"The PAN did poorly in states where it governs," said Dresser. "The PAN must realize that if it doesn't do a good job, it can be thrown out."

That reflects a growing sophistication among some voters at a time when other citizens, particularly impoverished PRI supporters, tend to rely on their party as a paternalistic benefactor, said Gov. Ernesto Ruffo Appel of the state of Baja California.

"This vision results from the political evolution of the nation," Ruffo said. "It is between those who can fight for themselves ... and those who have great needs and are so dominated by them that they are at the mercy of [political parties] who aid them. We must insure that this aid respects the dignity of the individual to construct a better Mexico and that need is not exploited for political means."