Sizing Up the Front-Runners

The intrigue-filled season for choosing Mexico's ruling party presidential candidate is under way

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THE presidential succession silly season is well upon us.

From the street venders of elote (steamed corn on the cob) to the fancy-suited in posh Polanco (Mexico City's Rodeo Drive), everyone has a theory about who will fill the shoes of President Carlos Salinas de Gortari.

To many, this intrigue-filled, candidate selection process is more relevant than the actual elections next year, because the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) candidate has won every Mexican presidential election since 1929. The PRI is the world's longest-ruling political party.

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The latest popularity poll of PRI contenders shows Mexico City Mayor Manuel Camacho Solis with a sizeable lead over Finance Minister Pedro Aspe Armella, who is closely followed by Social Development Minister Luis Donaldo Colosio.

Mr. Aspe held the top spot almost a year ago. But Aspe has fallen from grace due to dimming prospects for a North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the government-engineered economic slowdown (owners of medium and small businesses call it a recession) designed to curb inflation.

But succession logic holds that the popular front-runner is least likely to be chosen. So, Luis Sanchez Aguilar, director of the Institute of Mexican Public Opinion, which conducted the poll, says the next president will be Mr. Colosio, the current third place contender.

The Institute has rightly guessed the last three presidents. Mr. Sanchez argues that Colosio has the least to lose if NAFTA doesn't pass. And Colosio runs the popular Solidarity social and public works program.

The survey also places Agriculture Minister Carlos Hank Gonzalez third in popularity, ahead of Colosio, on two questions about Salinas's successor. But Hank Gonzalez cannot run for president. His father was born in Germany, and the Mexican Constitution forbids the president to be born of parents of foreign descent. The opposition parties also have a few strong "unelectable" candidates, but Constitution reform attempts have gotten nowhere.

While the latest poll feeds the succession scuttlebutt, Salinas won't announce the destapado or "unveiled one" until the end of this year. And six months is ages in the shifting tectonics of Mexican succession politics.

During this period middle- and upper-level Mexican bureaucrats stand on shaky ground. They don't know whom to do favors for, or which political team to cast their lot with. If they wait too long, or back the wrong candidate, it could cost them their jobs in the next government and derail their political careers.

Of course, it behooves the sitting president to fuel the uncertainty. Mexican presidents cannot be reelected, so as soon as the PRI candidate is announced, alliances shift and Salinas's political influence declines.

Street gossip puts at least five potential tapados (candidate for presidency who hasn't been unveiled) in the running. Messrs. Camacho, Colosio, and Aspe are the most visible. But dark horse theorists abound.

A Mexican businessman who claims a perfect record of divining tapados, says Education Minister Ernesto Zedillo Ponce, is "the one." "He's been traveling with Salinas lately," he notes.

"No way," says a veteran diplomat shaking his head sagely. "The real dark horse is Emilio Lozoya Thalmann [Minister of Energy, Mines, and Parastate Industry]. He's a close friend of Salinas. That's very important." The logic of choosing an "unpopular" candidate is that he feels he "owes" the sitting president. "If Salinas wants to insure continuity of his programs and have some influence into the next sexenio [six-year period], Lozoya will be the tapado," says the diplomat.

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