Mexico Waits As PRI Mulls Its Choice For the Presidency

MEXICANS are slowly emerging from an emotional haze of shock, sadness, and anger over the assassination of the ruling party's presidential candidate last week.

``This is our JFK - a fanatic robbed us of a youthful president,'' one young man says.

But with the funeral of Luis Donaldo Colosio over, and an unexpectedly stable day on the stock market last Friday, the nation is beginning to churn with political speculation over who will lead the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) in the campaign for August elections.

Over the weekend, the midnight oil was burning at the PRI party headquarters and at Los Pinos, the Mexican White House, with a steady stream of high-ranking past and present ``politicos'' coming and going, but saying little publicly.

Ernesto Zedillo Ponce de Leon, Colosio's campaign manager, and Fernando Ortiz Arana, the PRI party president, emerged as the most likely prospects to become the PRI's presidential candidate. The business community is backing Mr. Zedillo, an economist, who would provide continuity for President Carlos Salinas de Gortari's economic reforms. He is thought to be able to pick up the campaign reins with relative ease.

Zedillo detractors describe him as a brilliant but cold administrator, not a politician. He has never been elected to public office, although he was the secretary of education before taking on the campaign manager's post. A Zedillo candidacy would also leave open the PRI party rift between Colosio supporters and the Manuel Camacho Solis camp.

Mr. Camacho is the former Mexico City mayor and a close Salinas friend. But after being passed over as the PRI candidate, he stole the limelight from Colosio as the government peace negotiator in the Chiapas crisis. He angered Colosio supporters by not publicly backing the PRI candidate and waiting until last week to state he would not make a run for the presidency.

At Colosio's funeral, Camacho again stated he would not seek the presidency. Hard feelings within the PRI make Camacho an unlikely choice now. And Camacho may have his hands full in Chiapas.

Mayans on alert

The armed Mayan rebel group has gone on ``red alert,'' suspending talks with its supporters over a preliminary peace agreement. It is calling the Colosio assassination a ``prelude'' to a military offensive, citing recent bombings and a buildup of Mexican Army troops in violation of the cease-fire. The Mexican Army denies the accusations.

Some analysts are concerned that the Colosio murder may be used by PRI hard-liners to justify more ``law and order,'' meaning a tougher stance with the Chiapas rebels and backtracking on electoral concessions.

Meanwhile, Mr. Ortiz Arana's name is surfacing as the ideal candidate to unify the PRI. He would play the ``role of the agglutinin of the `Colosistas' and `Camachistas' '' writes Ricardo Aleman, a political columnist for the independent Mexico City daily La Jornada.

The PRI president has the advantage of wide support within the party and sound political skills. But he lacks administrative experience and is not well-known by the business community.

``Ortiz Arana may be what the PRI needs now, but can he win the election, and is he what the country needs over the next six years,'' wonders Roberto Salinas-Leon, economist of the Center for Free Enterprise Research. ``In the short term, the PRI needs a candidate that will get us out of this political mess. In the long term, it needs someone that provides continuity to the economic program.''

A dark horse on the list is Fernando Gutierrez Barrios, a former interior minister and ex-governor. He is a favorite of the PRI hard-liners and is seen as closing a gap that has opened between the government and the military over the Chiapas uprising.

Salinas's list of candidates might be longer if some of his top ministers were not excluded by law. The Mexican Constitution states that no presidential candidate is allowed to hold a high office, including state governorship, six months prior to elections. The presidential elections are now less than five months away.

To broaden his choices, Salinas could postpone the elections for a couple of months or call an extraordinary session of Congress to change the Constitution. But Interior Minister Jorge Carpizo McGregor seemed to rule out a delay in the elections, saying on Friday that they will proceed as planned. And opposition parties are already expressing their unwillingness to go along with a change in the Constitution to help the PRI out of its problems.

Financial markets hold

The political uncertainty caused by the death of Colosio - heir-apparent of Salinas's free-trade reform program - was expected to trigger a sell-off in Mexican stocks and a run on the Mexican peso. To avoid a panic, the Mexican government closed the markets on Thursday.

The Mexican stock index was off less than 1 percent on the day Friday, and up 5.78 percent for the week. A sharp drop in the value of the peso was prevented by the Bank of Mexico wading into the market to make purchases, according to market analysts.

``Friday showed the resilience and maturity of the Mexican economy and markets,'' says a relieved official.

Mexico did get a little help from its friends, though. In a signal of support, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development announced Mexico's admission to the influential club of industrialized nations - the first Latin American nation to join the 24-nation club. Admission had been planned for later this year.

And United States President Bill Clinton provided another confidence-instilling measure by opening a $6 billion line of credit on Thursday, in case Mexico needs funds to strengthen the peso.

``I suspect the markets will remain calm for the next three days,'' Mr. Salinas Leon says. Trading is generally slack during the days leading up to the Holy Week vacation. ``The next real test will come after Easter Sunday - when I suspect Salinas will announce his choice for the PRI candidacy.''

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