Mexico's Nine-Fingered President: Can Zedillo Hold the PRI without the Dedazo?

Article excerpt

In Mexico City, storytellers like to regale visitors with tales of Mexican heroes' missing appendages. Some insist that nineteenth-century dictator Antonio Lopez Santa Ana buried a lost leg amid pomp and circumstance. Others recall the amputated arm of revolutionary paladin General Alvaro Obregon, who wore his empty sleeve as a badge of valor when successfully running for president in 1924 and 1928.

Since the July 6, 1997 setback suffered by the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) in key midterm elections, local raconteurs have added the nation's "nine-fingered" president to the list. Ernesto Zedillo, figuratively speaking, has lopped off his index finger: at least with respect to handpicking some major office-holders in the time-honored practice known as the dedazo (after the Spanish word for finger, deco).

In an act of political self-mutilation, Zedillo divested selection of Mexico City's mayor from the presidency, proposing an off-year ballot that nonetheless drew an overwhelming 75% turnout. And once the electoral results flashed across TV screens, Mexico's 47-year-old jefe took placatory actions never before witnessed within his party which, since assuming power in 1929, has treated political foes with all the tenderness of Cromwell ruling Ireland. Zedillo not only congratulated Cuauhtemoc Cardenas--the winning candidate from the leftist-nationalist Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD)--but also invited the mayor-elect to meet personally in the presidential palace. After the requisite socializing and photo opportunity, Zedillo promised to endorse Cardenas' candidates for the capital's police chief and attorney general, despite the fact that naming these officials is a prerogative that has rested with the chief executive for most of this century.

Such "cavorting with the enemy," in the words of one critic, appeals to the PRI's contingent of machine-politics "dinosaurs" as much as would gargling glass shards. Led by tough-as-nails governors Manuel Bartlett Diaz (Puebla), Roberto Madrazo Pintado (Tabasco), Victor Cevera Pacheco (Yucatan), and union honcho Leonardo "La Guera" Rodriguez Alcaine, these hardliners see in the mid-summer election the imperative for confronting, not appeasing, their adversaries.

Why did the PRD sweep Mexico City by a two-to-one margin? Who bears responsibility for the loss of two additional governorships, raising to six (of 31) the number of statehouses held by the center-right National Action Party (PAN)? What accounted for the PRI's squandering of its majority in Mexico's 500 member Chamber of Deputies? These are a few of the compelling questions that the party needs to address.

Bartlett and his cohorts have drawn up a plan of action for the PRI to avoid future debacles at the voting booth. Their priorities include: selecting candidates more likely to appeal to the electorate; running more skillful campaigns; giving no quarter to PRD and PAN "crybabies," quick to claim election fraud at the first hint of unfavorable results; playing hardball with the press by withholding government advertising from publications whose reporters fail to write puff pieces about the PRI; and employing the regime's legitimate resources to reward loyalists and mobilize voters. "After all," observed one portly boss, "no one in your country raised a fuss when Bill Clinton jetted around the US on Air Force One, stumping for Democratic candidates in 1996, just as George Bush had done for the Republicans four years earlier."

PRI veterans buttress their arguments by pointing to last July's voting tallies in the states under their control. There, with the exception of PAN-dominated cities, the official party demolished its opponents--with few morning-after yowls of fraud.

Zedillo's allies in the PRI point to different lessons from the mid-year election results and dismiss the old guard's calls for cosmetic change to party tactics as too little, too late. …