SURPRISE changes in the secretive way Mexico chooses its president were recently announced in Mexico City. The governing Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), whose candidates have not lost an election for president or governor in 58 years, divulged a list of six names, all members of President Miguel de la Madrid's Cabinet, and invited them to discuss their qualifications for the presidency in meetings with an elite assembly of PRI leaders. Late this month one of the six will become the party's nominee and will thus be the sure winner of the presidential election to be held next July. Some political commentators and observers, impressed with the innovation, think optimistically that this could be an initial step in the long route toward real, open, and democratic presidential elections in Mexico.
It is not. In Mexico, presidents are chosen by presidents. The formality of the proceedings is changing only to keep the essence of the system intact. The consultations held the last two weeks of August by party officials with the six pre-candidates - who were ushered in one by one, in alphabetical order - are not meant to change that fact. Furthermore, these ``democratic consultations'' took place under very strict rules and tight party discipline. There is no way to know if the meetings influenced the eventual selection by the President of his successor. In fact, many Mexicans suspect that the President has already made up his mind and that the meetings are only setting the stage for his announcement.
After all, the six pre-candidates were not selected in an open contest where other party candidates were included. All were chosen by the President and were previously known to the Mexican public because of their close ties to him. In the recent consultations all six dutifully echoed the President's ideas. The specific content of each man's political views is yet to be known. The six know that one can campaign for the presidency only by pleasing the boss, not by criticizing or distancing oneself from the work of the administration. And the party leaders themselves offered the candidates no questions, no rebuttals, no endorsements. The selected audience knew that it was not for them to choose but to watch and wait. For a member of the party to publicly manifest a sympathy for any of the six candidates is a gamble that, if proved wrong by later events, could be very costly for his own political future.
The choice of his successor, known in the popular political folklore as el dedazo (the pointing finger), is the highest prerogative available to a president. This privilege is the fundamental source of the mythical presidential image, the basis of his prestige and authority, and the key to maintaining discipline and cohesion among the ruling elites. The succession is a thrilling mystery that occurs every six years, always in the fall of the year preceding the election, always with a sense of anticipation and emotion that absorb all energies. For the president, this solitary and intimate choice is a Shakespearean drama in which, at the moment the announcement is made, a new king is born and the old king begins to recede into the shadows of history.
Since this practice was stabilized in the 1930s, seven men have advanced to the presidency. None has died in office. None has been reelected, and none has made any attempt to extend his mandate. This record of predictability - an achievement from the perspective of Latin American standards - is the system's best defense.
Most of the prominent PRI members are still convinced that no other system of selecting the top leadership will better serve the nation's needs of political stability. The American historian Frank Tannenbaum wrote earlier in this century that two themes run through the history of Mexico: regionalism and cataclysm. Mexican leaders still believe that without a strong central authority, regional and factional rivalries will dismember the nation, opening Mexico once again to foreign intervention. The belief that democratic changes will threaten the integrity of the nation and that a self-perpetuating presidency knows always better than the people what is good for the country stems from the unspoken notion that Mexicans are not prepared to assume democracy's responsibilities. This paternalistic notion flatly contradicts the attitude of restraint shown by the Mexican society during the past five years of disasters, unprecedented economic crisis, and widespread political disillusion.
The minor alterations in the system are thus only a defensive move to counteract criticism of the PRI's autocratic method of candidate selection by prominent party figures, independent political leaders, and prestigious intellectuals. Within the PRI itself, the movement is known as the corriente democr'atica, or democratic current. The current is headed by Cuauhtemoc C'ardenas, a former governor of the state of Michoac'an and the son of L'azaro C'ardenas, Mexico's most respected post-revolutionary president (1934-40), and Porfirio M'unoz Ledo, a one-time president of the PRI in 1975-76. The movement has aroused considerable controversy inside Mexico and the sympathy of many PRI members, especially among the young, but is not yet a massive political movement.
Mexico's leaders see the change in the selection process not as a first step toward a more open system, but as the last concession to PRI reformers before the President's decision is consummated. That said, the alteration has sparked popular demands for accelerated democratization. Mexicans are now speaking frankly and openly about the deficiencies in the succession process. Mexico's political culture is evolving - even if the imposed process of selecting the president is not.