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Down but not out, Mexico's PRI revamps image

After defeat by Vicente Fox's party, the PRI is making drastic changes in hopes of a return to power.

Just six months ago, it seemed as if everyone was sounding the death knell for the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI).

After all, the political party that ruled Mexico for 71 years seemed to be in an irreversible downward spiral. It had already lost the presidency to National Action Party (PAN) candidate Vicente Fox, who swept the June 2000 elections on a pledge to clean up Mexico's famously corrupt system.

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And while rival PRI factions blamed one another for that defeat, a series of stinging gubernatorial losses in former state strongholds such as Yucatan, Chiapas, and Michoacan further eroded the party's influence, removing once-powerful PRI stalwarts - known here as "dinosaurs" - from long-held positions of power.

As each fresh election rout rolled in, the party appeared that much more lost for direction, mired in internal conflict, and seemingly unable to function in its new role as the opposition. These days, however - a little more than a year since Mr. Fox took over the presidency - the PRI looks less like an extinct beast and more like an evolving animal.

Although no one is predicting a certain comeback for the PRI, it's widely recognized that the party's political apparatus is far better organized than those of its two main rivals, the Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD) and Fox's PAN. And despite recent losses, it remains a key political force in Mexico, still holding a relative majority in the legislature and governing half the country's municipalities and states.

"The PRI has learned its lesson," party president Dulce María Sauri said late last month in a stunning admission to the PRI's 18th national assembly. "We have taken heed of our errors and decided to remake ourselves into a better party."

To wit, members at the four-day assembly voted to hand over 80 percent of party jobs to women and those under the age of 30. They opened the presidential post - one previously handpicked by the president and a handful of party leaders - to an open vote, set for Feb. 24. And they decided the party could now forge political alliances with other parties in Congress, something the once all-powerful PRI never deigned to do. Such voluntary reform measures have analysts seeing a viable political future for a party recently consigned to the funeral pyre.

"Half a year ago, I gave the PRI a 50-50 chance of even existing at all by the next term," says James Jones, the former US ambassador to Mexico, referring to the 2006 presidential vote. "Reengineering the party, the image, and reaching out to constituents, all this will be crucial."

Putting a fresh face on the PRI is exactly what young party leaders like Karla Aguilar Talavera intend to do. With her white manicured nails and sleek black leather jacket, the 26-year-old former-governor's aide looks more like a rebel socialite than a rising political star.

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But the president of the PRI's national women's committee says it's her role as "a young party militant" to forever change the party's course into what amounts to a kinder and gentler policy platform.

"We want to revive the human values of this party," she explains, acknowledging later that her new role in the PRI may never have come about, had the party not fallen from power a year ago.

The PRI's bid to win back the hearts and minds of Mexico's female voters and its youth is based on demographics and recent history.

More than 60 percent of Mexicans are between the ages of 14 and 28. As never before, women voters flocked to Fox, in some cases, polls showed, because they were attracted to his 6-foot-5-inch stature and deep, booming voice.

The PRI is also hoping to give the party a new, racier edge. It recently introduced a link on its website (www.pri.org.mx) called "Find Love with the PRI." The site says it will link like-minded singles, regardless, apparently, of their political affiliation. Ms. Aguilar says the group is also hosting parties for young Mexicans, discussion groups, and civic functions, such as an event where party members will hand out meals to Mexico City street kids.

The PRI wants to eventually win back voters who supported Fox in 2000 but since then have become disillusioned by what is widely seen as his failure to carry through on key campaign promises.

"People are tired of the same old thing," says Alejandro Guevara Cobos, who runs the PRI's youth wing. "We want to be thinking about how we can make our party and our country stronger."

For all the roadblocks that may lie ahead, most agree that the party appears to be taking its first cautious steps toward behaving as a democratic force.

And with national elections still more than four years away, it may be more important that the PRI first learn how to operate within an increasingly democratic nation, rather than govern one.

"The PRI continues to fear internal division. And there are many changes still pending," says José Antonio Crespo, a political analyst and the author of two books on the party. "What we have seen so far implies not that they are more open or clean, but that maybe, just maybe, they can survive in the opposition."


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