MEXICO CITY — Mexican President Felipe Calderon has provoked a dispute with the main opposition party, the PRI, by alleging that it might consider deals with drugs gangs if it won the presidency next year.

The Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which ruled Mexico for 70 years to 2000, is favored for the July 2012 elections, in which Calderon is constitutionally barred from seeking a second term.

In a weekend interview, The New York Times asked Calderon if the PRI could fall into a corrupt relationship with organized crime.

"It depends on who it is," Calderon responded. "There are many in the PRI who agree with the policy I have, at least they say so in secret, while publicly they may say something else.

But he added: "There are many in the PRI who think the deals of the past would work now."

The Mexican leader voiced long-standing accusations against the PRI as he sought to defend his own five-year military crackdown on organized crime, which has been accompanied by violence blamed for more than 40,000 deaths.

PRI politicians expressed outrage at Calderon's comments, which they said were untrue and failed to respect the impartial role of Mexican presidents in party politics.

"We're asking for an apology," said PRI spokesman David Penchyna on Milenio television Monday.

"We're sorry that at the twilight of his administration, the Mexican head of state risks generic statements trying to stigmatize our party," a party statement said.

"The president of the republic should be responding to requests from Mexicans about restoring personal and family security," it added.

As the presidential campaign warms up, Calderon has defended the crackdown on drug gangs which has marked his leadership, amid brutal violence in parts of the country and accusations of military abuses.

"It?s possible some will remember me for that (the crackdown) or will want me to be remembered for that," Calderon told The New York Times.

"But if Mexico triumphs as I am sure it will... there will also be those that remember me as the president who dared to take on the criminals."

Calderon's office later underlined that The New York Times had specifically referred to the PRI's reputation for making deals with organized crime.

It said that Calderon recognized that many in the PRI did not "share the idea of negotiating with organized crime" and supported his policy.

It was unclear whether the military deployment would continue under a new leader as Calderon's conservative National Action Party (PAN) faced the possibility of losing the presidency.

The PRI's photogenic favorite candidate, Enrique Pena Nieto, former governor of the State of Mexico, is currently leading in opinion polls.

Even if, as some Mexicans believe, there were deals between the PRI and drug gangs in the past, they would not necessarily work now, said Nicolas Lazo, an analyst from the Latin American School of Social Sciences (FLACSO).

"Drug gangs are organized very differently. The breaking up of their structures by the military operations has generated a lot of mid-level leaders. If they're fighting each other, how can you make pacts?"