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Mexico's "Dinosaur" Party Tries Comeback Makeover
email this pageprint this pageemail usMica Rosenberg & Caroline Stauffer - Reuters
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July 10, 2010

Mexico City - Seven straight decades of one-party and often corrupt rule earned politicians in Mexico's Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, an unflattering nickname: dinosaurs.

Now a new generation of fresh-faced candidates, who have come of age during the PRI's 10 years in opposition, are trying to change the party's image and retake the presidency in what promises to be a heated election battle in 2012.

The PRI was ousted in a historic election in 2000 and to win back power it needs to convince voters it would not rebuild the semi-authoritarian and corrupt system of its past.

President Felipe Calderon's conservative National Action Party, or PAN, toppled the PRI in 2000 but it has since failed during two presidential terms to enliven a sputtering economy and curb out-of-control drug war violence.

The PRI criticizes Calderon's army-backed campaign against drug gangs, which has exacerbated turf wars that have killed more than 26,000 people since late 2006. If the party returns to power, it may choose to pull soldiers - some who have been accused of human rights abuses - from the streets.

The party's stance on tax, oil and labor reforms that many investors say are needed to spark faster economic growth is unclear. Some PRI leaders are pro-business but the party has consistently blocked or watered down the PAN's fiscal and oil reform proposals in recent years.

Capitalizing on Mexicans' discontent with Calderon, the PRI says it is Mexico's only party with the experience needed to effectively run the country, but it is also offering up a younger generation of leaders.

Leading the charge is the PRI's likely presidential candidate, State of Mexico Governor Enrique Pena Nieto.

The polished 43-year-old lawyer and MBA-holder has the right mix of celebrity and powerful political allies to make him a formidable contender, with one May poll showing he already has a double digit lead over other potential rivals.

An obvious PAN candidate has yet to emerge since the death in a 2008 plane crash of former Interior Minister Juan Camilo Mourino, who was seen as being groomed to succeed Calderon. Mexico's main left-wing party appears to be too fraught with internal divisions to raise a serious challenge.

Mexico's television networks and newspaper society pages had blanket coverage last year of Pena Nieto's engagement to soap opera star Angelica Rivera at the Vatican with a personal blessing from Pope Benedict. He has strong family and social ties with an influential group of PRI politicians and traditional businessmen in his home state, the country's most populous.

The PRI has steadily gained momentum in state and local elections and it controls large blocs of voters from unions and farmer groups. The party captured a majority in Congress in 2009, and won nine out of 12 governor seats in July 4 state elections. Several strong traditional leaders of the PRI still carry more weight than Pena Nieto, and different currents within the party could throw doubt on a PRI consensus candidate for 2012.

But Pena Nieto is the front-runner and has traveled across Mexico to help PRI candidates in state elections - several of whom are under 40 years old - with a message of change.

"We do not want an improvised government, we want people who represent a new enthusiastic generation and are committed to Mexico," Pena Nieto said during a campaign rally ahead of last Sunday's election in the central state of Hidalgo. "This is a new generation of the PRI that we are consolidating."

The new PRI governor of Quintana Roo is 30 years old. The candidate expected to win in Veracruz state, after a tight race where votes are still being counted, is 36 and sports a flashy campaign website, a Twitter feed and 48,000 Facebook fans.

"Retiring governors have chosen local 'golden boys' who are photogenic, skilled campaigners, magnets for money, and - above all - prepared to shield their predecessors from corruption charges," Mexico expert George Grayson said in an article for the Center for Strategic and International Studies.


Many voters remain skeptical of the makeover and the PRI was hit by surprise losses in key strongholds on July 4. "It's still a Jurassic park," Grayson told Reuters. "There are lots of dinosaurs around and Pena Nieto is just a younger version."

In some places, the party resorted to old tricks to win.

Voters in drug gang-plagued Ciudad Juarez on the U.S. border, now one of the most murderous cities in the world, said the newly elected PRI mayor used handouts, including building materials, cash and kitchen blenders to gain support. Rights groups and rival politicians accuse him of working for a drug cartel.

Where the party lost ground in Puebla, Sinaloa and Oaxaca, the PRI's picks had been enmeshed in scandals. In Oaxaca, 2006 street protests calling for the sitting PRI governor's ouster turned violent and dragged on for months.

In Puebla, the PRI governor was recorded on tape colluding with a businessmen to try and arrange the jailing of a journalist who had uncovered a child sex ring run by powerful figures in the state. And in Sinaloa, the PRI's gubernatorial candidate appeared in a photo at a party with one of Mexico's most-wanted drug traffickers.

To win in those states, Calderon's PAN made uncomfortable alliances with left-wing parties - a strategy the PAN told Reuters it would use again next year to defeat Pena Nieto's handpicked candidate in the State of Mexico. But the PAN said it does not expect to use the coalitions on a national level.

"The PRI has the advantage right now just doing nothing ... that's different from the past," said analyst Federico Estevez at Mexico City's private ITAM University. "It's demographics: half the electorate never lived under the old regime."

(Additional reporting by Miguel Angel Gutierrez in Mexico City and Robin Emmott in Monterrey; Editing by Kieran Murray)

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