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Mexico’s ruling party finds it’s harder to win at same old game

June 16, 1997

MEXICO CITY (AP) _ To prepare the Lomas de Zaragoza neighborhood for a campaign stop, residents say Mexico’s ruling party handed out rice and beans, painted over graffiti and distributed a few plots of land.

It’s the kind of politics that _ combined with electoral intimidation and fraud _ has kept the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, in power for most of the last 70 years.

But only about 100 people showed up Sunday at a ``Father’s Day greeting″ to the masses from Alfredo del Mazo, the PRI candidate for Mexico City mayor. Few joined in the ``Del Mazo″ chants by about 10 bused-in PRI activists.

Del Mazo’s lackluster campaign in the first direct election of a Mexico City mayor in nearly 70 years is a sign of how his party’s power has eroded in recent years. The capital’s mayor has been appointed by the president since the PRI’s 1929 founding.

Many Mexico City voters, sick of plunging wages, rising crime and enduring political scandals, say they are ready for a change when they vote July 6.

``The (PRI) candidates come and talk, but it’s all lies. They say they’ll help, but then they win and nothing happens,″ organ grinder Antonio Flores Pera, 40, said near the city’s historic Zocalo Square.

He passed a hat while a partner turned the crank of a battered organ. Each earns about $3 a day, just more than half what they earned three years ago.

Del Mazo trails Cuauhtemoc Cardenas of the center-left Democratic Revolution Party by about 20 points in recent polls. Carlos Castillo Peraza, of the center-right National Action Party, is third.

Still, the ruling party is running a traditional populist campaign.

Residents of Lomas de Zaragoza, a poor neighborhood on the southeastern outskirts of this city of 8.5 million, said the PRI distributed rice and beans a few weeks before the campaign rally.

Gregorio Alcantara Vallejo, making fragrant tortillas on a squeaking machine, said party members painted over graffiti on the walls the day before del Mazo arrived.

Jose Israel Cortes Santos, a 24-year-old truck driver, said PRI officials distributed plots of land in late May. Two of his friends were recipients; he hopes for a handout too.

``That’s why I’m voting for him,″ he said of del Mazo.

Del Mazo laughed when asked about the food and land, saying the PRI never gives out such things. Maybe it came from the government, he said.

Maybe it did, but it hardly matters. For decades, party and government have been synonymous.

The PRI’s colors _ green, white and red _ are the same as those of the Mexican flag. Its power is based on a patronage system that rewards groups pledging their members’ votes. The PRI handed out jobs, assigned bus routes, gave taxi permits _ even distributed school lunches.

But electoral reforms have made it harder for the PRI to use government resources for political benefit. The government also has fewer disposable resources following the December 1994 peso devaluation, which began an economic crisis.

The privatization of hundreds of state enterprises over the past decade also has weakened the PRI. Many workers once beholden to government _ and thus the ruling party _ for their jobs, are now in the private sector.

``The government is no longer in the position it was before to distribute populist goodies,″ said Rodolfo Stavenhagen, a sociology professor at the private Colegio de Mexico. ``Basically, the system is breaking down because it isn’t delivering any more.″

It’s a bad time for the PRI to be running on its record in the capital, where a lingering economic crisis and poverty have led to soaring crime. So the party has adhered to its time-honored campaign strategy of taking credit for public works.

``We have always had concrete results,″ Del Mazo said in an interview. ``We inspire confidence.″

One of his campaign stops Sunday was the Emiliano Zapata neighborhood, a squatter camp where the government recently laid roads and sewers.

After offering a free tamale breakfast, he told residents about projects completed and those to come: a hospital, two more schools and an upgraded water system.

``Here, everyone is with the PRI,″ congressional candidate Paloma Villasenor proclaimed. ``The opposition hasn’t built a single road, hasn’t put in a single pipe ... not even a school or a hospital, like the PRI has.″

She didn’t mention that the opposition has never governed Mexico City.

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