Mexico: Will Colosio Be A Kinder, Gentler Salinas?

It's a political drama Mexicans watch with a mixture of fascination and dismay every six years. A half-dozen Cabinet ministers spend a year under intense public scrutiny, as each feigns nonchalance at the chance that el Se or Presidente might pick him to run as the ruling party's presidential candidate. When the ritual destape, or unveiling, of the President's choice occurs, the chosen one is elevated to demigod status. The awesome machinery of the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) roars to life and propels the candidate toward an almost certain victory in elections that have been mostly a formality over the past 64 years.

Such is the ritual-laden process that has served the PRI's needs well. Now, as Mexico moves toward the 21st century, craving acceptance as a fledgling member of the First World, such traditions are under pressure. The PRI's new candidate, Lu s Donaldo Colosio Murrieta, seems to understand that times are changing, especially now that Mexico and the U.S. are in a tight continental embrace and Americans are scrutinizing Mexico as never before. Says Jeffrey Schott, an economist at the Institute for International Economics in Washington: "The U.S. will be watching to see how well the new President can meet the commitments in NAFTA and to his own people."

Just before his nomination, Colosio, 43, told BUSINESS WEEK that political reform would be an "undeniable top priority" of the next Administration. Then, in his acceptance speech, he broke new ground, calling for a public debate among all presidential candidates. And while he pledged to continue President Carlos Salinas de Gortari's economic reforms, he also promised to place greater emphasis on social programs that could help raise up Mexico's poor.

GOOD OLD DAYS. But one wonders how profoundly he intends to reform a system designed to perpetuate his own party's rule. After all, as party president, Colosio himself helped bring the PRI back from the brink after the 1988 election, when Salinas barely squeaked into office amid charges of fraud. Colosio worked to mend the PRI's divisions and nurture strong regional leaders. To an extent, he succeeded: The PRI rebounded in the 1991 midterm elections. But he is well aware of the growing clamor for clean elections. Since 1990, charges of fraud by the increasingly vocal opposition have forced out three PRI victors in state gubernatorial elections.

Colosio's most formidable challenge in the election scheduled for Aug. 21, 1994, will come from Cuauht moc C rdenas Sol rzano, the son of legendary President L zaro C rdenas, who nationalized Mexico's oil industry in the 1930s. Many Mexicans believe C rdenas was the true winner in 1988. But this time around, the 59-year-old politician is groping for a compelling issue to fire up his so far feeble campaign as the standard-bearer of the left-leaning Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD). Even so, C rdenas symbolizes a Mexico that many people long for, a time when nationalism made sense and the challenges of globalization were still to come.

The other serious opposition party, centrist National Action Party (PAN), has little dispute with Salinas' free-market reforms but, like the PRD, intends to press vigorously for fair elections. Candidate Diego Fern ndez de Cevallos, 52, a lawyer and congressman, says he harbors no real hopes of winning but wants to offer Mexicans a choice. So, aiming at the PRI's weakest flank, the PAN will campaign on the theme of distributing income in Mexico more equitably. Indeed, during Salinas' term, the number of Mexico's billionaires jumped from 2 to 13. And the richest 10% of the population has upped its share of national wealth from 33% to 41.4% over the past five years, while that held by the poorest 40% has shrunk from 15% to 12.3%. To win back voters, the PRI must convince them that their fair share is forthcoming.

WATER WORKS. That is why Salinas' decision to groom Colosio for the presidency by placing him in charge of social development was so savvy. An economist with a master's degree in urban planning and regional development from the University of Pennsylvania, Colosio for the past 20 months has overseen Salinas' Solidarity program, which organizes and finances self-help projects across Mexico's poor pueblos, or villages. With a $2.6 billion annual budget, Solidarity installs water and sewer systems, finances schools and hospitals, and pays stipends to families so they will send their children to school, not to work. Critics charge, perhaps correctly, that Solidarity is largely a political tool to cement the PRI's power. But Salinas, whose clout will soon begin to erode, is counting on the program to secure his place in the history books as a socially conscious leader.

Salinas looks like he'll be the first President in two decades to leave office on a high note, with a free-trade treaty in hand and finances in tip-top shape. He leaves his successor two substantial tasks: lifting millions of Mexicans out of poverty and into schools and better-paying jobs while opening up the system. If, as is likely, Colosio prevails, that's an agenda that will test his much touted political skills.

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