MEXICO CITY — The head of Mexico's former ruling party resigned Friday over a financial scandal that threatened the party's efforts to rebrand itself as corruption-free and retake the presidency in 2012.
Institutional Revolutionary Party head Humberto Moreira stepped down at a party meeting broadcast nationwide and intercut with live denunciations by opposition politicians. It was a remarkable scene in a country where the leader of the PRI once held virtually unquestioned power.
The PRI ruled Mexico for seven decades until voters angry at economic mismanagement, cronyism and corruption voted for the conservative National Action Party in the 2000 presidential race.
Eleven years later, Mexicans appear to widely accept the PRI's argument that it has learned from the past and become open and democratic. Its youthful and telegenic candidate, former Mexico State Gov. Enrique Pena Nieto, leads potential competitors by double digits in recent opinion polls on the July 2012 election.
Moreira was widely promoted as the face of the new PRI after he stepped down as governor of the northern state of Coahuila last January. He frequently appeared in national campaign ads with party candidates for key state races.
Then, in July, the Coahuila legislature said the state's total debt was four times larger than the 8.4 billion pesos ($700 million) that was reported by state officials just before Moreira stepped down.
The PAN said it suspected at least some of the public money was stolen by officials, demanding a criminal investigation into the assets of one of Moreira's former aides. Moreira has not clearly explained the ballooning debt figure, but has said repeatedly that the debt issue is being used by PAN as a smear campaign.
For months, Pena Nieto and other powerful PRI members stood by Moreira, who repeatedly said he would not step down.
Then, on Monday, Coahuila's state treasurer was arrested on suspicion of falsifying state documents that authorized the government to seek new loans – the first criminal charges in the case.
Pena Nieto and other PRI members began distancing themselves from the party head, and on Thursday the presidential candidate told Milenio Television that the party "clearly needed to weigh the circumstances of the weakening of our party's leader."
By Friday it was clear Moreira would be forced out.
"I've resigned because I'm not going to allow a media war that is trying to harm our party to continue," Moreira told party members. "I also do it because I believe in a man who is the hope for Mexico, Enrique Pena Nieto."
PRI secretary-general Cristina Diaz was named interim president of the party.
The national head of the leftist Democratic Revolution Party, Jesus Zambrano, said Moreira had been "sacrificed" to save Pena Nieto, 45.
"It's becoming much clearer that the highly touted new PRI is the same old PRI that the majority of the people threw out of the presidency in 2000 because it was a true burden and a tragedy for the country," he said.
The conservative PAN has filed a complaint with the federal Attorney General's Office demanding an investigation into Moreira's former aide, Vicente Chaires, claiming he became rich on an administrative secretary salary while buying property in Texas and becoming a partner in radio stations. The PAN complaint accuses him of lending his name to assets on behalf of Moreira, though it provides no proof.
PAN Secretary-General Cecilia Romero went further Friday, telling reporters there was clear evidence of criminality in the budget scandal.
"The voices of millions of people who believe in accountability and transparency as ways to strengthen institutions and protect citizens from abuses of authority won't be satisfied just with his removal as president of the PRI," she said. "We demand that the legal case continues."
Standard & Poor's has said Coahuila's debt was accumulated mostly because of public investment. Coahuila's lawmakers agreed they spent what was needed on infrastructure to create jobs and weather the 2008-2009 global recession that hit income from manufacturing and remittances sent from relatives living in the U.S.
Associated Press writers E. Eduardo Castillo and Adriana Gomez Licon contributed to this report.