In Mexico, one runs for office discreetly. Mexicans speculate on who President will name as successor

Only Mexican President Miguel de la Madrid Hurtado knows who the next president of this country will be - because he personally chooses his successor. But that has not prevented the issue from being the hottest topic among everyone, from political scientists to businessmen to newspaper columnists. Barely a day passes without a couple of newspapers running a story speculating on what Mexicans call the destape or unveiling of the ruling party's presidential nominee.

Next September, Mr. de la Madrid's Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) will announce its candidate for the 1988 presidential election. And many Cabinet officials are already ``campaigning'' for the post.

Presidential aspirants here do not run for office the way they do in the United States. In fact, say political scientists and politicians, they have a better chance if they are seen to be not running at all. The trick, these observers say, is to be seen seeing the right people and saying the right things, but not to be so blatant about it that one upstages the President.

This time around, the ``campaigning'' started earlier than usual when Treasury Secretary Jes'us Silva Herzog resigned in June. For Mexican political watchers, there was no doubt. That meant de la Madrid did not want Mr. Silva Herzog to succeed him.

The number of pictures of Programming and Budget Secretary Carlos Salinas de Gortari appearing in the papers has increased dramatically of late. He is usually shown at the President's side or shaking hands with powerful union bosses. Mexicans nod. This means he is presidential material.

When Alfredo del Mazo left the governorship of Mexico State to become secretary of mining, energy, and parastate industries, he joined Mr. Salinas de Gortari and Interior Secretary Manuel Bartlett D'iaz as one of the top three contenders for Mexico's highest post.

J'esus Salazar Toledano, the PRI party chief for Mexico City, recently took some of the mystery out of this ``campaigning.'' Mr. Salazar said de la Madrid was considering the top three contenders, whom everyone already knew, as well as Education Secretary Miguel Gonz'alez Avelar, a darker horse.

But though the names are now public, there is still an unknown factor: what criteria de la Madrid will use in determining his successor.

``He [the candidate] has to be within the mainstream pool -- a Cabinet official not on the extreme left or right and not pro-American or excessively anti-American,'' explains Jorge Castaneda, a professor at the Autonomous University of Mexico and currently a senior associate of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. His positions must be such ``that no one is too happy or too unhappy,'' he added.

Once the PRI candidate is revealed, interest groups supporting the PRI such as labor unions, peasants, and bureaucrats laud the appointment. The PRI then organizes a campaign and an election, which most political scientists call a ratification rather than an election.

Mexican presidents have been chosen by this method since 1934. Post-revolutionary Mexico has been governed only by PRI presidents. Before 1934, power either was not transferred or only after violent battles.

The scars of these times still penetrate people's memories, encouraging them to support this unusual method of electing a president, analysts say. That is not to say there aren't complaints about the system. Though opposition parties have not been as strong in the past as now, opposition candidates did complain bitterly and run against the PRI. But now, with increasingly widespread accusations that the PRI wins because it rigs elections, the protests are many.

Even PRI members are voicing dissent. Former PRI party leader and Cabinet member Porfirio Munoz Ledo has called for presidential aspirants to resign from the Cabinet and openly campaign to restore some semblance of democracy.

J'esus Gonz'alez Schmal of the National Action Party, the largest opposition party, predicts this time there will be much more criticism of the presidential succession. ``There is a greater convergence of diverse parties banding together in defense of their voting rights.''

``The cost to the government of putting in their candidate as they normally do will be great. This won't be a traditional succession,'' Mr. Gonz'alez Schmal adds.

Columnist Teresa Loda of the liberal newspaper Uno Mas Uno agrees. ``The succession of Miguel de la Madrid will be one of the most difficult, because of the gravity of the economic situation and because of the crisis of confidence and legitimacy that has deepened,'' she says. ``Among the ranks of loyal servants, there is no one capable of awakening even the most minimal hope [in the system].''

Yet no one expects that serious disagreement on government policy will arise. Political scientists say this is largely because those who are powerful enough to organize effective protest won't want to ruin their chances of being included in the new administration.

So why bother with a campaign? ``The campaign is much more important than the election. The candidate gets to know the country and the country [gets to know] him,'' Mr. Castaneda says. ``It is essentially a cram course in Mexican affairs.''

The election itself is just a ratification of the president's choice and proof that power is peacefully handed over, political analysts say.

So the only election poll that need be taken here is the one that asks only one citizen, Miguel de la Madrid, who he wants to preside over Mexico from 1988 until 1994.

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