By Lorraine Orlandi and Noel Randewich
MEXICO CITY, July 5: Deeply divided and beset by scandal, the party that ruled Mexico for most of the last century must reinvent itself or die after taking its worst beating ever at the polls.
The Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, was Mexico's monolithic political power for 71 years until losing the presidency in 2000. But it ran a distant third in the election for president on Sunday and gave up its dominant position in Congress for the first time.
Party faithful and political experts say the PRI, seen by many as corrupt, recalcitrant and autocratic, must find a new role in the opposition to survive.
''The party faces the challenge of redefining itself with new proposals and a new face as a result of a very painful experience,'' said David Penchyna, a party leader who ran Roberto Madrazo's failed presidential campaign.
Preliminary election results showed Felipe Calderon of the ruling party beating leftist Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador by about 1 percentage point and Madrazo trailing badly.
Madrazo's poor showing was due partly to the ''candidate factor,'' said political scientist Federico Estevez, a former PRI advisor. Madrazo was seen as an old-style PRI ''dinosaur'' and several party reformists turned their backs on him.
Scandals also battered the party, like one in which rights groups accused a PRI governor of plotting to have a crusading journalist arrested over her book about child prostitution.
The internal turmoil reflects the PRI's struggle to find its way in Mexico's new democracy after it lost power.
''The PRI governed for 70 corrupt, stealing and power-abusing years,'' said Jesus Gonzalez, a Zapotec lawyer who voted in the village of Teotitlan del Valle in the largely indigenous Oaxaca state. ''People no longer want that. The PRI was finished six years ago.''
ERODING BASE Under seven decades of PRI rule, Mexicans understood that cozying up to the party was a route to a job, a government-backed mortgage or farm aid. When Vicente Fox of the National Action Party, or PAN, broke the PRI's hold on the presidency it lost much power to dole out favors and control huge constituencies like unions.
Instead, the PRI used its clout in Congress to block Fox's proposals. In the new Congress, however, it will be reduced to the third-largest force. The PAN will have the largest bloc, though no majority.
To remain a viable political force, the PRI must take a constructive role, negotiating with the new government in order to get credit for passing initiatives, experts say.
''(Under Fox) they stuck together with a big 'no' to everything.
That's no longer good enough,'' Estevez said.
With a vaguely centrist ideology, the PRI could stake out new political ground between the conservative PAN and the leftist Party of the Democratic Revolution, which will be the second-largest force in Congress and will likely take a combative stance after its narrow electoral defeat.
''The new president will seek a coalition of forces to pass reforms,'' Penchyna said. ''The PRI can show that despite its defeat it is willing to contribute to the country's growth.'' In what may have been a gesture of goodwill, Madrazo accepted the election results on Tuesday as fair.
Many Mexicans cannot imagine the death of the PRI which, despite its failings, is credited with steering Mexico clear of the civil wars that swept much of Latin America in the 20th century and was long a part of daily life.
''The PRI, as the Mexican saying goes, is a necessary evil,'' said Ivan Mitchel Hernandez, 23, a lifelong PRI member from the western state of Jalisco. ''Mexico needs to keep equilibrium among the powers. Or we will become like Venezuela or Cuba.''