Head of PRI runs hard for an edge

Country Briefing Mexico
EIU/ Infoestrategica

MEXICO CITY - Meet Mexico's marathon man, Roberto Madrazo, who spends three hours a day working out and the rest running - for president.

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The trim 52-year-old says the discipline and training from his 32 marathons are political assets as well. They have helped him outlast rivals to become the leader of Mexico's former ruling party, bring it back from the dead and position himself as a major contender in the 2006 presidential election.

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"Politics is an endurance race too," said Madrazo, whose charm, infectious laugh and tendency to touch a lot during interviews brings to mind Bill Clinton. "You learn you have to push through after hitting the wall, to dominate pain, to not give in to cramps or blisters, to recover yourself so you can triumph. Low blows don't matter - you keep running."

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Madrazo has a reputation for delivering a timely elbow of his own to disable or eliminate a rival. His two most significant electoral victories, attaining the Tabasco state governorship in 1994 and the nationwide leadership of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, in 2002, bolstered his reputation as having a "doctorate in electoral engineering."

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His stamina and tactical skills are being tested as never before. The presidential race is shaping up as a bitter fight between Madrazo and the leftist rival he beat in Tabasco in 1994, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, with each struggling to capitalize on popular disillusionment with center- right President Vicente Fox.

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Lopez Obrador, now Mexico City's mayor, emerged as the clear front-runner last week, when the Fox administration's attempt to prosecute him over a land dispute and knock him off the ballot collapsed amid a well-organized outpouring of public sympathy.

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The backlash has weakened Madrazo because of his behind-the-scenes role in engineering the congressional vote last month that stripped the mayor of his immunity from prosecution. The PRI leader has fallen 10 percentage points behind the mayor in voter preference polls.

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Moving to limit the damage, Madrazo said he welcomed his old rival on the ballot. "We will beat him again," he said.

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But Madrazo is such a polarizing figure that many wonder whether he can win Mexico's highest office.

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There is a long list of former friends and supporters who say he betrayed them after they outlived their usefulness.

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"Maybe it's his extreme coldness, which in a politician may be a virtue, but in a human being is something detestable," said Arturo Nunez, a former PRI federal deputy who says Madrazo dumped him after promising support in the 2000 Tabasco governor's race. Others praise his common touch.

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"He listens to people," said Alfonso Izquierdo, a longtime friend and political confidante. "He follows the adage that although it may be high noon, if the people say it's dark, then light the lanterns."

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The love-hate reaction to the thrice-married Madrazo could cause problems in the presidential race, analysts say. Opinion polls consistently show that voters trust Madrazo least among the major contenders.

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"His negative poll numbers may well make him unelectable," said Leo Zuckermann, a Mexico City political scientist and elections expert. "No one is neutral about Roberto Madrazo. He excites passions."

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Doubts that he can overcome those negative perceptions to win a national election have divided the party and prompted several PRI governors and a senator to oppose his bid for nomination. But no strong alternative candidate has emerged.

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For now, Madrazo is basking in the party's gratitude for reviving its prospects.

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When he became the PRI's leader, the party was broke, demoralized and rudderless after losing the presidency in 2000 for the first time in its 71-year history. Today, the PRI is on solid financial ground, has racked up significant gains in both houses of the Mexican Congress and suffered only one net loss in 20 gubernatorial elections. Last year, the PRI wrested the Tijuana and Ciudad Juarez mayorships from Fox's National Action Party, or PAN - two key victories.

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"I took over a party with no winning spirit, and now the PRI is winning elections, has a new electoral strategy and is more democratic," Madrazo said in an interview.

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"There are some who have distanced themselves because they think that for friendship I have to give them a place. My conviction is that if someone wants a candidacy, they have to do it through the democratic way, not the old political system of patronage."

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Even his detractors concede that Madrazo has organizational gifts, learned in his 30 years in the trenches for the PRI.

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After years of top-down autocratic leadership by aloof technocrats, Madrazo said, the strength of the party is once again its militantes, or foot soldiers. And Madrazo cultivates their support. He is an indefatigable glad-hander, operating just fine on 4 1/2 hours of sleep a night.

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But critics charge that as much as Madrazo says he's running against the past and authoritarianism, he has no real guiding purpose beyond getting elected.

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"I don't think Madrazo has a long-term political plan beyond attaining power for its own sake," said Alfonso Zarate, a Mexico City political analyst. "There is no vision."

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Politics is in Madrazo's blood. He is the son of a reformist Tabasco state governor, Carlos Madrazo, who was killed with his wife in a mysterious 1969 plane crash. The senior Madrazo had argued for democratizing the PRI, and some suspect that he was killed to silence a dissenting voice.

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"Carlos Madrazo saw opening up the party as a means of it staying competitive. But President Gustavo Diaz Ordaz and all his political apparatus saw such a proposal as subversive and damaging to the party," said Rogelio Hernandez, a political science professor at Colegio de Mexico here.

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The crash left 16-year-old Roberto and his three siblings orphans. Madrazo says now that rather than pursue conspiracy theories, he chose to look ahead.

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While studying for a law degree at Mexico's National Autonomous University, he cofounded a PRI-sponsored chain of free legal clinics in Mexico City. Madrazo gained political patrons and rose rapidly in the party, becoming national PRI youth president, then at age 24 winning a seat to represent Tabasco in the lower house of Congress in 1976. In the 1980s, he took various administrative jobs in the party, getting to know every corner of the country, before being elected senator in 1989.

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He became close to another up-and-coming PRI leader, Luis Donaldo Colosio, who was the best man at Madrazo's third wedding. Colosio was named the PRI's presidential candidate in the 1994 election but was assassinated at a campaign rally in Tijuana months before the vote.

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At the time of the Colosio assassination, Madrazo was back in Tabasco as state PRI chief, preparing to run for governor, a race that would be a defining event in his career. Madrazo won by a wide margin, but his opponent, Lopez Obrador, quickly raised claims of vote fraud.

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Madrazo was sworn in Jan. 1, 1995, but Lopez Obrador's supporters in the left-of-center Democratic Revolutionary Party, or PRD, surrounded the statehouse and wouldn't let Madrazo or any other state functionaries enter. Strikes brought the state to a halt.

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Two weeks later, with Tabasco still paralyzed, recently inaugurated President Ernesto Zedillo called party mate Madrazo to Mexico City to order him to resign the post as a conciliatory gesture to the PRD. Such resignations were not uncommon in Mexico - Zedillo's predecessor, Carlos Salinas de Gortari, pushed out 17 governors - and Zedillo needed the PRD's cooperation to deal with a financial crisis.

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But Madrazo defied Zedillo's order to quit.

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He set in motion a series of strikes of his own, ordering truck drivers to seal off roads and other supporters to take over the airport of the state capital, Villahermosa, allowing only military aircraft to take off and land.

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Zedillo was forced to relent.

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"At that point in history, you didn't say no to a president. To do so was to effect your own ostracism," said Sen. Dulce Maria Sauri, who believes that Madrazo did the right thing in defying Zedillo.

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Thus Madrazo's national reputation as a tough independent was made. But it was soon besmirched. Weeks later, Lopez Obrador ceremoniously dumped boxes of PRI internal documents in Mexico City's zocalo, or main square, that he said proved Madrazo had spent $72 million on the campaign, 60 times the legal limit.

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Although the charges were never proved, the image of Madrazo as an unscrupulous campaigner remains in voters' minds, polls indicate. Madrazo maintains that he spent only the legal limit and that Zedillo fabricated the charges as political vengeance.

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In any case, Madrazo emerged from his term as the governor of Tabasco popular with its people and with a strong political base from which to seek higher office.

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"He would show up in the most out-of-the-way places in Tabasco with no bodyguard and walk through the mud with the campesinos, sit down and have chicken with them, and a few hours later put on an Armani suit and talk politics in Mexico City or Washington," political scientist Hernandez said. "He has that talent of getting close to people."

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In the PRI's first open presidential primary, in 1999, Madrazo ran for the nomination against Francisco Labastida, Zedillo's favorite, and two others. Labastida won, but Madrazo says to this day that he lost only because Zedillo put federal resources at Labastida's disposal.

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But since Labastida went on to lose the election to Fox, Madrazo says that it was a blessing in disguise to have lost the nomination. Anyone would have had trouble beating Fox and the PAN, he says, and the country needed a change.

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If Madrazo took his eye off his ultimate goal of becoming president, it wasn't for long. He soon began campaigning for PRI national president, a post he won in 2002 in a bitter race against former Tlaxcala state Gov. Beatriz Paredes.

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Again, allegations of irregularities at the polls surfaced, with Paredes campaign manager Maria de los Angeles Moreno charging that Madrazo ran a campaign that resembled "organized crime." Paredes partisans said, for example, that Madrazo had received more votes in the state of Oaxaca then there were voters registered.

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Madrazo laughs off accusations of underhanded dealings, saying that disputes within the party reflect the new spirit of democracy that he has helped engender. Catching flak, he says, is all "part of being a leader of a political party in Mexico."

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"If the people weren't in favor of what I propose, we wouldn't be winning elections," Madrazo said. "We are winning, because the people want a different PRI."

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SOURCE:  EIU/ INFO-e

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