MEXICO CITY — SOON after Carlos Salinas de Gortari squeaked through the most hotly contested presidential election in Mexican history last year, political pundits began predicting the demise of the central pillar of the Mexican system: the tradition of the all-powerful president. They were wrong.
Eleven months after taking office, the bookish-looking Mr. Salinas heads into his first state-of-the-union address today as a leader admired - and sometimes criticized - for his displays of presidential muscle.
Like a 98-pound weakling transformed into a Charles Atlas, Salinas has jailed corrupt union officials, nabbed drug kingpins, sold off state companies, silenced the left, and overcome an internal struggle by giving the right-wing opposition its first state-election victory.
More important, especially for the middle classes that abandoned his Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) in the 1988 elections, the Harvard-trained economist has helped stabilize the economy and stimulate modest 2.5 percent growth this year.
Those are powerful actions for a president supported last year by only 50.7 percent of the voters. At the time, even some PRI analysts figured the former budget minister would be forced to relinquish some presidential power and cut back on his economic reforms.
But Salinas has turned such conventional logic inside out.
In a nation that still values leaders more for their machismo than their flexibility, Salinas saw that the most effective way to mold a modern Mexico was to use old-fashioned presidential power.
The strategy is strikingly similar to that of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, also struggling to overhaul a stagnant economy and an anachronistic political system. Such comparisons have earned Mexico's economic reform efforts the nickname Salinastroika.
Whether Mr. Gorbachev or Salinas, ``a good reformer always has to use the element of surprise to keep the initiative,'' explains a top government adviser.
Few Mexicans doubt that Salinas is now in charge.
His aggressive use of presidential power adds a new twist to Mexico's traditional presidencialismo, which has served as a basis for political stability here for more than half a century.
Salinas's style mixes old and new, just as his Cabinet deftly combines old-style politicians with young, foreign-educated economists. Even as Salinas talks of establishing a purer democracy and a less-centralized economy, his actions reflect a nearly absolute centralized power.
``It's paradoxical. They are antidemocratic maneuvers although, to some extent, they have democratic goals in mind,'' says Roderic Camp, a Mexico expert at the Central University of Iowa. ``It doesn't make sense unless you understand Mexican culture.''
For centuries, Mexicans have been attracted to the caudillo figure - a powerful leader not afraid to make forceful decisions. That attraction persists.
``Even with all the talk about modernization and democracy, a strong president is expected,'' Mr. Camp says.
But for some critics, Salinas's presidencialismo is worrisome.
``The presidential arbitrariness we are witnessing is not a sign of national renovation, but a dangerous return to the past,'' political scientist Adolfo Aguilar Zinser says.
Salinas, in any case, has acted with an eye toward the future.
According to PRI insiders and Mexican analysts, his principal aim has been to win back the influential urban middle classes. These sectors, disturbed and disillusioned by the crisis, voted overwhelmingly for the opposition in 1988, giving Salinas only 10 percent of their votes.
Salinas wants the middle classes back in the PRI fold before key congressional elections in 1991. His actions, from cracking down on corruption to playing tough with unions, have drawn kudos from the generally conservative middle classes. But what lures them most is more mundane: a stable exchange rate.
The Salinas administration has kept the peso from rapidly slipping over the past year by supporting it with more than $10 billion from the nation's foreign reserves. While expensive, such stability has quieted the once-anxious middle classes, which now buy more goods with fewer pesos.
``As long as you can give people round-trip tickets to Miami for 500,000 pesos [$200], they don't really care what you're doing or not doing,'' says Jorge Castaneda, a political scientist at Mexico's National Autonomous University. ``As long as you have the money to [finance a stable exchange rate], it's very sound politics.''
Salinas is confident that restructuring the economy, privatizing state industries, and liberalizing trade will help keep the country solvent. But his view of Mexico's political future is not so clear. In July, the PRI conceded a gubernatorial victory to the right-wing National Action Party in Baja California at the same time the party was committing blatant fraud to defeat the political left in Michoacan State.
Salinas's attacks on PRI-controlled unions and local leaders have been popular to some extent because they distanced him from the PRI. But last month, the PRI-controlled Congress pushed through a flimsy electoral reform.
M. Delal Baer, a fellow at the Center for Stategic International Studies in Washington, says: ``I'm worried that the Mexican public will remain cynical and that Salinas will continue feeling that it's possible to restore the PRI's former glory.''