Scrambling the eggs in Mexico; Election: Unprecedented access to TV has turned the first presidential primary by the nation's ruling party into a free-for-all.


MEXICO CITY -- One image best symbolizes tomorrow's historic presidential primary by Mexico's ruling party.

It is the private parts of Roberto Madrazo.

Madrazo, the former governor of the state of Tabasco, is seeking the nomination of the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). During his campaign, he ran a television spot about crime. He told Mexico: "You solve the problem with you know what."

He was referring to "huevos" -- eggs, slang for testicles. "To have huevos" is a common Mexican expression denoting a person's unflinching nerve.

"And boy, do I have them," Madrazo exclaimed.

This is the first primary campaign run by the political party that has ruled Mexico for 70 years.

The three-month campaign -- aided by another unprecedented development, the extension of television access -- has been a free-for-all of name-calling, up to and including "liar."

Three candidates besides Madrazo are seeking the nomination. The others are Francisco Labastida, a former Cabinet secretary and state governor; Manuel Bartlett, another former secretary and governor; and Humberto Roque, former party president and leader of the PRI faction in the lower house of Congress.

An open PRI presidential primary is about as strange -- and has as much precedent -- as, say, free elections in Cuba.

The PRI is one of the world's great remaining authoritarian political structures, an apparatus formed to administer power, not compete for it.

Its customs reflect that. The president always chose the party's candidate in a mysterious anointing known as the "dedazo" -- the fingering. Because the PRI never lost elections, choosing the candidate meant choosing the next president. The real campaign was for the president's favor and, though just as ferocious, was always behind closed doors.

Losers were expected to meekly fall in behind the anointed one -- to "discipline themselves," in the party lexicon.

But invigorated opposition parties have emerged in the last 10 years and won elections. PRIistas upset at not being selected as candidates have bolted from the party, often to run on opposition tickets for governor or mayor.

As the July 2000 presidential election loomed, hard-line PRI elements, out of favor with President Ernesto Zedillo but with strong support among the rank and file, took up the banner of democracy and demanded that the "dedazo" be junked. The party faced the real prospect of major breaks in its ranks unless a clean primary were held. So the party that made vote fraud a high art is working hard to show that it can put on a pristine election.

Tomorrow's election will include 64,500 voting places, 16 million ballots and 140,000 vials of indelible ink to stain the thumbs of those who have voted so they can't vote again. About 400,000 party officials and candidate representatives will act as observers. The party is spending $9 million on the election and expecting at least 6 million voters.

But large sectors of the party insist that the primary is the same old dedazo in different clothing -- a "virtual dedazo."

Labastida appears to have Zedillo's support, though the president insists he favors no one. Certainly, he has the backing of much of the party apparatus, as measured in money and workers. His campaign has given away breakfasts and medical examinations -- both legal but requiring resources the other candidates lack.

"The competition has not been according to the rules," Bartlett complains. "The money spent has been scandalous and surpassed the agreed-upon limits."

But Bartlett never stood a chance of winning; neither did Roque.

Bartlett was interior minister in 1985 when an agent of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency, Enrique Camarena, was killed. The American ambassador to Mexico, Jeffrey Davidow, has said he would have to answer questions about the case before a grand jury the next time he enters the United States.

Roque ruined his career in a split second in 1995. After a vote on an unpopular sales-tax increase, which the PRI-dominated Congress passed, he was photographed celebrating with a gesture -- hands in fists, arms bent at the elbows at 90-degree angles, pulling toward the body -- that Mexicans use to denote the sex act. No one missed the implication. The gesture is popularly known as the "Roque signal."

Madrazo might have been a more credible candidate -- but he has not disciplined himself.

Denied the party's apparatus of money and manpower, Madrazo turned to television to create a candidacy.

This was a first for Mexico. When the media were state-controlled, renegades didn't get air time. But the Mexican media have opened along with the country. TV stations take ads from anyone with money and allow opposing views on talk shows. Candidates appear on comedy programs. The host of "Otro Rollo," Adal Ramones, used a Madrazo appearance to make a milkshake using several eggs.

Madrazo hired adman Carlos Alazraki, who put together a series of spots that showed the candidate as a scrappy street fighter, a man of the people facing unfair odds. Madrazo's followers describe Labastida's sometimes hollow official campaign as "suits and ties in search of bodies."

"Poor people are with Madrazo," says Sara Padilla, a 37-year PRI member in Mexico City. "Those who never get anything, they're with him. Labastida comes from the 'dedazo,' from the president. No more of that."

Madrazo also made use of his last name -- which is an offensive slang term meaning "serious beating." He has urged voters to "give a Madrazo to the dedazo." Mexican media watchers could not recall hearing the word "madrazo" used on the air in that context.

Television transformed Madrazo's image from a party hard-liner to a democratic challenger of the authoritarian status quo. "That's what this election is about," he insists. "Do we change or continue on as always?"

Recently, however, his campaign has flagged. Labastida predicts that he will get 66 percent of the vote. "Challenging the rusty PRI machinery, [Madrazo] forced it to oil and polish itself," wrote Denise Dresser, a political analyst, in the news weekly Proceso. "Now that revitalized machinery is going to crush him."

So the question seems to be what Madrazo will do when he loses. Co-existing with Labastida within the PRI after the words they have exchanged would seem difficult.

Yet the party needs Madrazo. If he left, he could take with him enough votes to swing what promises to be the closest presidential election in modern Mexican history. Commentators speculate on possible back-room negotiations between the Labastida and Madrazo camps.

Madrazo vows to fight any election he views as unfair -- implying that he might also leave the party. But he has few places to go. Opposition parties welcome his followers, but view him as an unregenerated ruling-party hard-liner, despite his campaign rhetoric.

So the result of the PRI's first stab at democracy might, ironically, be the same as always -- ratification of the "dedazo."

His "huevos" notwithstanding, Madrazo may finally have little choice but to do what losers did in the past, discipline himself.

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