REPORTING FROM MEXICO CITY -- A leading political party in Mexico this week chose a woman as its candidate for the presidency, a first in the country's history. More interesting, the party that did it is the ruling bastion of Mexican conservatism, the National Action Party, or PAN.
As the July presidential election nears, watchers of world news are sure to be hearing much more about the PAN, its candidate Josefina Vazquez Mota, and her main rivals, Enrique Peña Nieto of the party known as PRI, and Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador of the PRD.
These three main parties are sometimes described in easy categories of left (PRD), right (PAN) and center (PRI), but the reality is far more complex. Here's a primer on how to understand the top political name brands in Mexico heading into the July vote.
Institutional Revolutionary Party
There is easily no more loaded term in Mexican politics than the three letters that make up the acronym of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, the PRI. And perhaps no greater oxymoron, some might quip.
It emerged as a consolidating force after the tumult of the Mexican Revolution. Over time, the PRI practically invented brand-name politics. Its name, ideology and even brand colors (same as the national flag) are directly linked to the very concept of the Mexican republic. For many years, the party was the country, and the country was the party.
The PRI developed a patronage system that virtually ensured electoral victory year after year. It soon became synonymous with corruption, disastrous financial mismanagement and violent repression of dissent, as typified by the Tlatelolco massacre of 1968.
In the 1988 presidential election, the PRI was accused of electoral fraud that some claim robbed the outcome from dissident candidate Cuauhtemoc Cardenas, son of a revered former president, when PRI-controlled election authorities announced the vote-counting system "went silent."
When the system returned, the PRI's candidate, Carlos Salinas de Gortari, was declared the winner. Salinas went on to lead Mexico through the worst of the PRI's decadence, and by 2000, exasperated Mexicans finally booted their longtime political overlords from power with the election of Vicente Fox of the PAN.
Ever since, the PRI has been mounting its comeback, leading the pack by substantial margins in current polls. Claiming it is a "new" PRI, the party has yet to state in a clear fashion that it would govern much differently than before.
Candidate: Enrique Peña Nieto
Campaign color: Red
National Action Party
National Action is the party that unites Catholics and capitalists in Mexico. It is free-market, conservative on social issues and friendly to foreign interests. It casts itself as efficient and effective, but it now faces the same kinds of accusations of corruption and waste as the PRI did in its heyday.
The PAN's roots are also found in the post-Revolutionary period, after the Cristero War, a bloody conflict in which Roman Catholics were persecuted in a wave of anti-clerical sentiments and laws. Counter-revolutionary leaders seeking religious freedom organized themselves in 1939 into a political group, which included some factions that were sympathetic to European fascism (link in Spanish).
To this day, the PAN remains the political home for Mexico's devout Catholics.
For decades, PAN survived as the minor opposition to the PRI behemoth, but by the 1980s, growing disillusionment with the PRI made the PAN an attractive alternative.
The first PAN governor was elected in Baja California in 1989, reflecting its early foothold in the more industrial, more "American" north of the country. Today, PAN governs nine states (including several multi-party coalitions) and holds about a third of seats in Congress.
Despite disaffection with two consecutive PAN administrations under Fox and current President Felipe Calderon, the party is hoping a buzz-worthy female candidate could help keep it in power for six more years.
Candidate: Josefina Vazquez Mota
Campaign color: Blue
Party of the Democratic Revolution
After the repression of 1968 and the ensuing Dirty War, a generation of political thinkers lost trust in the dominant party for good, and rumblings began for the creation of a new wing of progressive politics. In the aftermath of 1988, the progressives formed the Party of the Democratic Revolution, or PRD. Cardenas was its presidential candidate in 1994 and 2000, finishing third each time.
The PRD gradually built its political base in the populous capital, where it has governed without interruption since 1997. Cardenas remains the "moral leader" of the party, but its figurehead is now Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, a former mayor of Mexico City.
Lopez Obrador is a polarizing figure. In 2004, he was subjected to a legal attack from the Fox administration, which sought to disqualify him as a future national candidate. The attack failed and bolstered Lopez Obrador's popularity.
But the PRD's goal of finally capturing the 2006 presidency would not be. The PAN campaign under Calderon smeared Lopez Obrador as a "danger to Mexico" and a would-be Hugo Chavez, Venezuela's hard-line leftist president. On election night, authorities said the result was too close to call.
What followed was a wild political drama that saw a partial recount, an early Occupy-style sit-in by the dissatisfied PRD, and an official result of less than 1 percentage point difference between Calderon, the declared winner, and Lopez Obrador, who also declared himself the winner and the "legitimate president."
Lopez Obrador was badly damaged by his decision to shut down the city center and his refusal to accept the official results. For now, the PRD trails in polls behind the PAN and PRI. But two internal factors that worked against the leftist in 2006 are not in his way this time.
First, a minor socialist party that offered a likeable woman candidate in 2006, Patricia Mercado, has since lost its registration and disbanded. (Mercado won nearly 3% of the vote in 2006.)
Second, Cardenas did not publicly support Lopez Obrador's campaign in 2006, a gaping absence rooted in personal differences between the two men. On Monday, a day after Vazquez Mota won the PAN primary, the old PRD leader came out and endorsed Lopez Obrador for president in a show of symbolic leftist unity heading into the 2012 vote.
Candidate: Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador
Campaign color: Yellow
-- Daniel Hernandez
Photo: Supporters of a PRI gubernatorial candidate, Eruviel Avila, rally in Toluca, Mexico state, in June 2011. Credit: Alexandre Meneghini / Associated Press