Mexico awaits the big decision

Where will the ``big finger'' fall? That's the question buzzing around working-class cantinas and upper-crust clubs here, as Mexicans try to guess who will be their next president. They won't have long to wait since the ``dedazo,'' or ``big finger,'' of President de la Madrid - will soon fall on one of six potential ruling-party candidates. The choice will culminate more than 18 months of agonizing speculation - and initiate nine months of campaigning, though the PRI candidate is virtually assured victory in next July's election. Buoyed by a modest economic recovery and bogged down by widespread political dissent, Mr. de la Madrid is thought to be seeking someone who blends economic and political savvy.

Among the PRI's top three contenders, such a magic combination seems absent - or at least latent:

Manuel Bartlett D'iaz, Secretary of Internal Affairs: criticized for handling fraudulent elections in 1986; considered soft on economic matters; favored by those who feel rough patch requires an experienced politician rather than a ``technocrat.''

Alfredo del Mazo Gonz'alez, Secretary of Energy and Mines: maintains good relations with both labor and the private sector; once called ``younger brother I never had'' by de la Madrid; rose from state governor to Cabinet post two years ago, following pattern set by de la Madrid in 1982 succession.

Carlos Salinas de Gortari, Secretary of Planning and Budget: bright Harvard-educated economist; architect of de la Madrid's reforms, dedicated to economic restructuring; young and untested in the Mexican art of political negotiation.

The PRI's three dark horses are Mexico City Mayor Ram'on Aguirre Vel'azquez, Attorney General Sergio Garc'ia Ram'irez, and Education Secretary Miguel Gonz'alez Avelar. Of them, only Mr. Garc'ia Ram'irez, leading Mexico's fight against narcotics, seems to have an outside chance.

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