ANDRES OPPENHEIMER The return of Mexico's political dinosaurs

If you thought that Mexican President Vicente Fox's 2000 election victory marked the end of the corruption-ridden authoritarian party that had ruled that country for seven decades, you may be wrong. Mexico's nationalist-leftist political dinosaurs are coming back, in a big way.
Last weekend's key local elections in the states of Oaxaca and Baja California marked a major victory for Institutional Revolutionary Party president Roberto Madrazo, the leader of the old-guard wing of the party -- known as the "dinosaurs" -- which harbors some of the most shady political characters of Mexico's past.
Now, there is a good chance that Madrazo will be the PRI's candidate for the 2006 presidential election. While reformers within the party were advocating a "New PRI" that would leave behind the party's old habits of vote buying, subtle voter intimidation and at times well-masked fraud, Madrazo will be able to claim that he is the most effective leader when it comes to winning elections.
In Oaxaca, a poverty-ridden state controlled by a Madrazo-backed PRI governor, PRI hard-liner Ulises Ruiz was leading by 2 percent of the vote amid opposition allegations of massive fraud.
An opposition coalition made up of Fox's ruling National Action Party, leftist parties and PRI moderates says the PRI rigged the vote in several remote locations where the opposition couldn't post electoral observers. A state election board is recounting the ballots.
In Baja California, a highly controversial Madrazo-backed PRI candidate, gambling tycoon Jorge Hank Rohn, seems to have won the Tijuana mayor's job.
Hank Rohn is the son of a former Mexico City mayor who went from absolute poverty to a $1.3 billion fortune while working his entire life in the public sector.
The mayor-elect is reportedly worth $500 million, has 18 children and owns a private zoo with 20,000 animals. One of his bodyguards was convicted of killing Hector Felix Miranda, an editor of the weekly newspaper Zeta, which had long crusaded against drug trafficking in Tijuana. Another Zeta journalist, Francisco Ortiz, was murdered two months ago, and the magazine has since named Hank Rohn as one of the suspects in the murder. Hank Rohn says he had nothing to do with either killing.
In addition to last weekend's victories, PRI candidates won July 2 state elections in Chihuahua and Durango. And last year, the PRI won the key state of Nuevo Leon, a stronghold of Fox's PAN party, as well as Sonora, Campeche and Colima.
"The upward trend is unstoppable," David Penchyna Grub, head of the PRI's national committee, told me last week. "It's inevitable that, in view of these victories, there is growing talk about the possibility of his [Madrazo's] candidacy for the presidency."
Jorge Castaneda, a longtime PRI critic and former foreign minister who is running for president as an independent, agrees that last weekend's election has cleared the way for Madrazo's nomination.
"Absolutely, the fat lady is singing: he will be the PRI's candidate for 2006," Castaneda told me. "It's a triumph of the old PRI, a triumph of electoral fraud, of corruption, of vote buying, of the most authoritarian wing of the party."
Madrazo, a former governor of Tabasco state, was believed to be a political cadaver in 1995, when political adversaries produced 14 boxes of internal PRI documents containing thousands of receipts from his gubernatorial election, including payments to journalists, labor leaders, a Roman Catholic priest and people who were paid to attend Madrazo street rallies.
What's more, the documents showed the PRI had spent $65 million for Madrazo's election, almost 60 times the legal campaign spending limit for that election. Madrazo's adversary in the Tabasco race was today's Mexico City leftist mayor, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, who leads in the polls for the 2006 presidential election.
My conclusion: Madrazo will most likely be the PRI presidential candidate for the next election. Only two things could go wrong for him: a massive flight of PRI reformers to other political parties, which is doubtful, and a probe in coming days that would prove opposition claims of fraud in the Oaxaca election.
If that happens, Madrazo's victory could quickly turn into a political disaster, and open the way for a comeback of PRI reformers. If it doesn't, Mexico's political dinosaurs have the upper hand.
XAndres Oppenheimer is a Latin America correspondent for the Miami Herald. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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