ANDRES OPPENHEIMER Mexico's '06 election: Return of dinosaurs?

What irony! Five years after Mexican President Vicente Fox became the first opposition leader to win an election in more than seven decades -- a historic event that some described as equivalent to the fall of the Berlin Wall -- Mexico's political dinosaurs of the old regime are coming back. And they could conceivably win the 2006 elections.
Last week, Mexico's Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), the corruption-tainted authoritarian party that ruled Mexico for 71 years until 2000, won gubernatorial elections in Mexico State and Nayarit by a landslide. They were the last important elections before the presidential vote scheduled for July next year.
In Mexico State, the country's most populous, PRI Gov.-elect Enrique Pena Nieto won with an impressive 48 percent of the vote in an election with only a 40 percent turnout. Candidates for Fox's ruling National Action Party (PAN) and the left-of-center Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) got only about 24 percent of the vote each.
Granted, the PRI victory was tainted by accusations that the PRI had violated electoral laws by spending way beyond legal limits. But lawsuits against the PRI over spending limits have seldom resulted in more than a slap on the wrist and a manageable fine.
And, granted, the PRI -- known by many as the party of the dinosaurs -- faces an uphill battle for the 2006 elections. A May 30 poll by the daily Reforma shows that Mexico City Mayor Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, of the left-of-center PRD, leads the race with 36 percent of the vote, followed by PRI president Roberto Madrazo with 25 percent and Fox's former secretary of government, Santiago Creel, with 24 percent.
"Unlike what happened in previous elections, the polls are not likely to change much between now and the election," Sen. Manuel Camacho Solis, a close aide to Lopez Obrador, told me in a recent interview in Mexico City. "The number of undecided voters this time is much smaller than in previous elections."
But PRI officials are confident that they can win, even if they are in the midst of a fierce internal fight for the party's nomination. Madrazo, the front-runner, is being challenged by half a dozen party leaders who have teamed up in a group known by its Spanish acronym TUCOM, or "Everybody United Against Madrazo."
First, PRI officials say, the polls showing a huge lead by Lopez Obrador were taken in late May, at the peak of the Mexico City mayor's media exposure. Lopez Obrador had just won a protracted fight against the government over an effort to impeach him and deny him the right to compete in 2006.
Second, the Reforma poll shows that the PRI, as a party, is leading the pack. When asked which party they would vote for, 25 percent of those questioned said the PRI, while 23 percent said the PRD and 21 percent said Fox's PAN party.
State capitals
Third, the former ruling party is already governing 18 of Mexico's 31 states, and about 1,500 of the country's 2,400 cities. Since the last national elections, the PRI has recovered state capitals such as Tijuana, Ciudad Juarez and Monterrey.
"We are recovering our voters," says David Penchyna, a top PRI official. "When we were in power, we couldn't be too critical of the government, nor take the lead in social causes. Now, we can."
My conclusion: The real winner in last week's Mexico State election was voter apathy. Nearly 60 percent of the voters stayed home. That corroborated fears that -- while Fox remains popular on a personal level -- there is widespread disappointment over his government's failure to fulfill its campaign vow of being "the government of change."
Sixty-six percent of Mexicans feel that Fox's PAN government has been "the same" or "worse" than the previous PRI regime, the Reforma poll shows. In other words, many Mexicans are concluding that all politicians are pretty much the same -- a conclusion that bodes poorly for the country's democracy.
X Andres Oppenheimer is a Latin America correspondent for the Miami Herald. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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