Salinas's Centrist Line Splits Mexican Rivals

Strategy has challenged the left and drawn support away from the main opposition party on the right

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

PRESIDENT Carlos Salinas de Gortari is carving a center-right path through the Mexican political landscape, leaving the opposition weak on the left and divided on the right, analysts say.

The latest evidence is a series of high ranking defections from the conservative National Action Party (PAN). Nine veteran party leaders resigned from the PAN on Oct. 7. Since then, dozens of party officials in at least one-third of the Mexican states have abandoned the PAN.

The dissidents claim the current PAN leadership has sold out to Mr. Salinas.

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"The PAN has lost its way," says Jose Gonzalez Torres, a former presidential candidate and longtime party ideologist. "The PAN is no longer a party ... guided by ideas, principles, and programs inspired by its own doctrine. It's pro-Salinista, pro-liberal, and pragmatic."

The dissidents strongly object to a number of steps the PAN has taken during the Salinas administration. For most of its five-decade history, a pillar of its existence was independent funding. Now the PAN accepts the federal funds available to all political parties. But given the tight links between the government and the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which has held power for more than 60 years, PAN purists see this as bribe money or a dangerous form of dependence.

Salinas has adopted variations of the programs pushed for years by the PAN: bank and agricultural reforms, free markets, and better relations with the Roman Catholic Church. But the dissidents say the PAN is not acting like an opposition party; it simply accepts watered-down versions of its policies. And the PAN rebels object that a party official now sits on the governing board of Solidarity, the government's populist anti-poverty, public works program. Dispute with old guard

The head of the PAN, Luis Alvarez, denies that the PAN has been coopted. He argues that he cannot be blamed for Salinas's adopting PAN policies. And the PAN continues to push for democratic reforms. "We have pointed out time after time that it isn't enough to open the economy if these changes aren't accompanied by changes in the political system," Mr. Alvarez says.

Ironically, the divisions are surfacing at a time when the PAN has seen its greatest success in attaining office. For the first time in its history, the PAN has three governorships: Baja California, Chihuahua, and Guanajuato.

"The PAN has never been in better shape," says Frederico Estevez Estevez, political scientist at the Autonomous Technological Institute of Mexico, a private college. "But this could create serious problems for it." At the very least, Professor Estevez believes the split will force the PAN to distance itself somewhat from the policies of the ruling PRI, change its rhetoric, and lend less support to Salinas initiatives in the Mexican Congress.

"Gonzalez Torres is leader of the traditional Catholic faction in the PAN. He takes with him a fair amount of moral authority. It's something like having Pat Robertson hounding you at the [US] Republican convention," Estevez says.

The PAN dissidents plan to meet next month to form a new political party along the lines of Christian Democrats in Europe and Latin America. How many more PAN party members will defect to this new party remains to be seen. Left prospects

While the right splinters, the main opposition party on the left, the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), has won a second chance in a key state.

In July, based on official results, the PRD lost the gubernatorial race in Michoacan. That loss, in the PRD's strongest state, was seen as a death knell to the party's chances in the 1994 presidential elections.

Claiming electoral fraud, the PRD mounted a series of protests and sit-ins. On Oct. 6, the elected governor, Eduardo Villasenor Pena of the PRI, stepped down, requesting a one-year leave of absence to restore the peace. Most observers do not expect Mr. Villasenor to be back in 12 months, but so far there has been no agreement on new elections. In the interim, a PRI official will govern Michoacan.

While not a total victory for the PRD, Michoacan marks the fourth time during Salinas's rule that an elected governor was forced out of office by opposition protests of alleged fraud.

"The PRD has managed to pick live coals out the ashes of Michoacan," Estevez says. He speculates that the PRI removed Villasenor because it no longer fears the PRD in the 1994 presidential elections. And it is better to have the PRD participating within the electoral system than giving the radicals within the PRD an excuse to sow unrest, demonstrate, and scare off potential foreign investors.

"If you position the PRI against a credible left and right, that puts the party in the best possible position for the 1994 elections," Estevez says.

In recent months, Salinas has been crafting a more centrist image of the PRI, Estevez says. The austere economic reforms advocated by the right-wingers are in place and not discussed, while the president gives more attention to Solidarity and his policies of "social liberalism."

Nonetheless, by bowing to the PRD's pressure tactics, Salinas demoralizes local PRI supporters. And a precedent is reinforced: If the opposition loses in coming state elections, it may expect a "second round" of civil disobedience to bring better results.

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