Madrazo-Gordillo Split Poses a Serious Problem for the PRI and for Mexico

  • The PRI, Mexico’s oldest and most elemental political party, prepares for its bid to recapture both the presidency and prestige it lost in the 2000 election.
  • A reenergized and bitter rift between hardline and reformist factions in the party flares anew, with two top leaders pitted against one another.
  • The party’s current crisis underscores the depth of democratic change in Mexico over the last 10 years.
  • This quarrel could have long term implications for the PRI, as well as for all of Mexico.
  • As President Fox’s pointed comments regarding bilateral relations over the weekend added to the tense atmosphere along the border, another battle is brewing within the heartland of Mexico. A power struggle within the former ruling center-left Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) has threatened to potentially break apart that historic institution and lead the country to a political crossroads in 2006.

    The PRI dominated Mexico’s politics as an authoritarian regime from 1934 to 2000 using a skillful mix of repression, cooptation and fraud. In its later years, as external pressures for a democratic opening strained the system, cracks emerged within the party between what became known as hardline “dinosaurs” and reformers. The schisms have not disappeared in the years since Vincente Fox led the pro-business PAN party to victory in 2000, and as the 2006 presidential election season approaches, political divisions within the country have become even more pronounced. As the PRI prepared to hold a national convention on August 31, a splenetic conflict unfurled between then PRI secretary general Elba Esther Gordillo Morales and then PRI party president Roberto Madrazo Pintado.

    Hardliners and Reformers Collide at Convention
    The rupture between Gordillo and Madrazo broke starkly along political lines. Although Madrazo is the son of 1960’s democratic reformer Carlos Madrazo, he is himself categorized as a party hardliner, which in the context of the PRI represents a predilection for the nepotism, cronyism, and fraud that the party epitomized during its “glory years” prior to 2000. Madrazo has been called “the most corrupt man in Mexico,” and his defeat of former Mexico City mayor and presidential hopeful Andrés Manuel López Obrador in the 1995 Tabasco gubernatorial race was stained by barely concealed electoral trickery on a massive scale. His party backers are numerous and powerful, and form a tightly woven camarilla, Mexican slang for the highly loyal personalistic clique that surrounds major political figures. The madracista support base includes congressman Emilio Chuayfett Chemor, party leader Manlio Fabio Beltrones, as well as Oaxaca governor Ulises Ruiz Ortiz.

    Gordillo, on the other hand, has strong reformist credentials. In 2003 she headed a broadly supported movement called Renovating Force that worked to modernize and democratize the party. The same reform-minded faction of the party still exists and has mostly aligned behind her in the recent struggle, although some of its members also have distanced themselves from her, including such party dissidents as State of Mexico governor Enrique Montiel Rojas and Coahuila governor Enrique Martínez y Martínez.

    At the party’s national convention, Madrazo was to step down from the party presidency to pursue his 2006 presidential bid. Yet according to procedure, following Madrazo’s resignation, his party post would be passed to Gordillo. This position is particularly important at this juncture, as the party president will oversee the selection of the PRI’s 2006 presidential candidate. But with no guarantees that Gordillo would support Madrazo’s presidential bid, the party hardliners sought to block her selection.

    According to a statement released by Gordillo, Madrazo repeatedly offered to “permit” her to occupy the position of party president after his resignation, in exchange for her support of his candidacy, despite the fact that under party rules it would automatically pass to her, regardless of the hardliner’s wishes. Gordillo, insulted by what she saw as an act of sheer political extortion, lashed out with a broadside criticizing Madrazo as corrupt and anti-democratic. She also announced that she would boycott the convention, calling it a farce.

    Without Gordillo, the convention played out much as the party hardliners had hoped. Mariano Palacios Alcocer was named party president, and while he is somewhat perceived as being a backer of Montiel, his selection does not represent a major concession to the reformist faction and even less so an appeasement of Gordillo. Her actions surrounding the convention led many priistas to feel that Gordillo had betrayed them and the party, and her personal differences with the PRI establishment may now be irreconcilable. A September 5 report on the website Latinnews even suggests that the PAN has made overtures to Gordillo, leaving open the possibility of a powerful new alliance since the latter publication claims that she controls about 10% of the lower House’s PRI delegation.

    While all this may amount to little more than political drama, the implications of these events easily dwarf the more mundane formal wrangling over who gets to be party president. What is at stake here is nothing less than the future of Mexico’s oldest, biggest, and most institutionalized political party.

    History of Intra-PRI Divisions
    The struggle between hardliner and reformist factions within the PRI is not a new phenomenon. In the 1960s, a group led by Carlos Madrazo sought in vain to democratize internal party processes for the nomination of candidates. While such a move would not have threatened the one-party authoritarian dominance the PRI maintained at the time, it would have provided considerably more transparency to the methods through which PRI candidates were selected by a small group of top party leaders – particularly the country’s president – in a process known as the dedazo.

    As the national drive towards a democratic opening of Mexico’s political system gained steam in the 1980s and 1990s the PRI again found itself divided between those who sought to hold on to the ways of the past, and those who felt the party needed to adapt in order to stay in power. In 1988 Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas Solórzano, a governor and son of the legendary president Lázaro Cárdenas, irritated by the party’s resistance to change and angered by the nomination of Carlos Salinas de Gortari as PRI’s presidential candidate, defected to form his own political movement. His bid for the presidency fell short by a wafer-thin margin, and forced the PRI to fudge the results in order to make their victory appear more convincing.

    These tensions were at the heart of two massive scandals in 1994 which included the intrigue-laden murders of party reformers Donald Luis Colosio and José Ruíz Massieu. In both cases party hardliners were rumored to be behind the deaths. These killings gave many citizens the perception that the two factions of the PRI were truly at war with each other, to the detriment of all Mexicans. The fact that as President from 1994 to 2000, Ernesto Zedillo adopted the mantle of reformer, and enacted major changes to electoral law that allowed for Fox’s victory did not, however, automatically signal the final dethroning of party hardline pooh-bahs who had controlled the party’s heights of power.

    Walking Dinosaurs
    These hardline “dinosaurs” (or, prinosaurios, as Mexican satirists are fond of saying) have remained a constant factor in Mexico’s modern political life. The legacy of the “old-school” tactics of vote buying, clientelism, and fraud lingers in many poor rural areas where PRI leaders still maintain a tight grasp on the population. When Ulises Ruiz won the governorship of Oaxaca, rumors of multiple frauds were whispered throughout the country. On the national scale, democracy brought with it a level of pluralism never before seen in the country, yet PRI congressional leaders have been slow to adapt, preferring obstruction to negotiation, repeatedly preventing current President Fox from achieving tangible legislative results. While some of the more outrageous elements of the PRI’s infamous legacy have diminished, they have by no means disappeared, suspicions of venality routinely arise every time the PRI triumphs in a close election.

    It is this climate of obduracy that today brings the PRI to a breaking point. Mexico is no longer the country of 1950, when the party was in its heyday, nor is it even the same as it was in 1988, when overt fraud in a presidential election went unchecked. Changes in social values, public expectations, and civic activism have threatened to leave the PRI behind as a beached relic, and the current intra-party battle is a reflection of the difficult and intense pressures that are becoming too numerous to be easily contained.

    While it seems all but certain that Madrazo will be the party’s presidential candidate, he will not necessarily be universally popular, even within his own party. Early in the year, when it became clear that he was the PRI’s likely nominee for 2006, an anti-Madrazo group formed containing reform-oriented segments of the party who felt that a return to the party’s antediluvian past would spell electoral doom in 2006. At the same time, the hardline Madrazo loyalists have closed ranks, signaling the beginning of a struggle for both the soul, as well as the levers, of the party’s political power.

    Implications of the Rift
    The current rift between Gordillo and Madrazo further underscores the difficulties the PRI has experienced in adapting to Mexico’s new democratic reality. At the heart of the quarrel is the struggle for transparent political processes within the PRI, a transparency that would mirror the general progress towards openness currently occurring elsewhere in Mexican society and its fundamental institutions. Reformers such as Gordillo rightly fear that if the PRI does not modernize itself now, it risks electoral defeat in 2006 and a quick descent into political irrelevance. PRI senators Manuel Bartlett and Mariano González Zarur recently claimed in an article in the Mexico City newspaper El Universal that “Madrazo will be the only one responsible if the PRI loses the 2006 presidential election,” and cited anti-democratic proceedings at the convention and in the candidate selection process as the reason why the party will fall from grace. Their analysis is a sound one: Mexican voters cannot be counted on to enthusiastically respond to a party that is seen as clinging to its corrupt, and now widely repudiated, past. One satirist joked that Madrazo’s actions at the convention marked a “return of the dedazo,” a stinging reference to the country’s painful political history.

    With those concerns only adding to the PRI’s already eroding electoral base, inability to maintain internal coherence among its senior leadership, suggests that come next summer the PRI may find its once vaunted voter-mobilization machine shattered into bickering factions. Gordillo is a well respected politician (at least as much as any politician can be respected in Mexico) and as head of the SNTE (Sindicato Nacional de Trabajadores Educacionales or the National Union of Educational Workers) she represents one of the country’s largest constituencies, in the nation’s teachers.

    If Gordillo’s reluctance to support Madrazo has to weaken his bid, more damaging still would be the wholesale exodus of the party’s reform wing. The reformers are currently loosely organized under the name Unidad Democrática or Democratic Unity (U.D), a name which recalls the Corriente Democrática (Democratic Current), the movement within the PRI that led to the monumental defection of Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas in 1988. Although the U.D. may represent less of an earnest interest in reform and the makings of a self-interested attempted power grab, it is a large enough movement to bring on a political earthquake. While an independent Unidad Democrática candidate would struggle to even be a contender in 2006, by simply refusing to support not only Madrazo, but the PRI as a whole, it could certainly play the spoiler, and in doing so could sink the party for good.

    End Game
    There are those who believe that there still is time for the PRI to recover. If Montiel, the Unidad Democrática candidate for the party’s presidential nomination, is chosen instead of Madrazo, it might be possible for the party to mount a powerful unified challenge in 2006. However, that unlikely outcome could alienate influential madracistas, also leading to party disintegration. Even less plausible is the possibility of a compromise candidate, leaving the PRI in a very untenable situation. Madrazo is set upon being president, and up to now he has successfully employed both suasion and coercion, and in spite of the problems his candidacy may cause, he remains the likely candidate irrespective of what maneuverings it will require. Indeed, Madrazo could even potentially manage to reunite the party through concession and cooptation, although preserving such a viperous group would be difficult.

    Even with his support splintered, however, Madrazo could still carry a strong campaign based on his innate political savvy and his campaign’s major financial advantage. Yet this dispute has once again undoubtedly marred the party’s image among the rank and file of the Mexican electorate who increasingly see the PRI as stagnant and beyond reform. That the “old ways” triumphed at the convention indicates that the PRI may perhaps never successfully adapt to Mexico’s new democratic reality.

    Nevertheless, it is hard to imagine a Mexico without the PRI. After all, this is a political party which was so instrumental to the country’s daily life that it was not seen as being inappropriate for its symbol to mimic the design of the Mexican flag. For nearly all of the 20th century the PRI was the engine of Mexican society, and while its control has waned over the last twenty years, until now it had remained the country’s best organized and consistently its most coherent party. In spite of the perpetual charges of corruption and nepotism, it was also generally regarded as the party most capable of solving problems when in office. Neither the PAN, nor the left-wing party, the PRD, is capable of assuming the role of a truly national political organization, and both continue to identify with the “opposition party” mentality. In the absence of the PRI, Mexico could potentially face a crippling level of political pluralism, with the need for alliances hindering the possibility of effective governance. Yet, the PRI’s return to power would almost inevitably come about at great cost to the Mexican nation – a price it might not be prepared to pay.