PRI Presidential Candidate Untested in Mexico Politics

Salinas picks former budget and education secretary to carry mantle

MEXICO'S ruling party has chosen a new presidential candidate cast in the image of President Carlos Salinas de Gortari.

Ernesto Zedillo Ponce de Leon is a young economist, a free trade advocate, a northerner, and an Ivy League-educated technocrat. Since the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) has not lost a presidential race in 65 years, Mr. Zedillo becomes the favorite to win August's elections.

But unlike President Salinas, Zedillo has almost no political experience except for his two months as campaign manager for Luis Donaldo Colosio, who was assassinated last week.

``This is the big doubt we all have about Zedillo: Does he have the political skills to win an election and run the country,'' says Juan Molinar Horcasitas, political scientist at Colegio de Mexico, a leading private research institution.

Zedillo has never run for public office, but is considered a savvy administrator. Salinas appointed him as secretary of budget planning (a post held by Salinas and his predecessor) and later as secretary of education. But his tenure as education secretary was marred by a political furor over the publication of grade school history texts.

Zedillo was originally on the list of those to succeed Salinas. ``His performance as education secretary derailed his chances,'' says Roderic Camp, a Mexico expert at Tulane University.

In the coming weeks, the PRI will be playing catch-up in the presidential campaign. ``About 25 to 30 percent of the population are PRI clients. They'll back any candidate the party puts forward. Beyond that, we'll need to see how effectively Zedillo can attract more sympathizers,'' says Miguel Basanez, director of Mexico City's Market Opinion and Research International.

Zedillo's skimpy track record has political analysts split as to what this means for the presidential race. His views are seen as more conservative than Colosio's, who in recent weeks had been emphasizing greater social and democratic reforms.

The center-left Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD) candidate, Cuauhtemoc Cardenas, garnered almost one-third of the votes in the 1988 election, which was marred by claims of fraud.

``Cardenas is the primary beneficiary of the new PRI candidate,'' Mr. Camp says. ``Zedillo offers voters a clearer choice than before, while the PAN [the conservative National Action Party] stands to suffer, as Zedillo's economic philosophy is more along the lines of the PAN.''

Camp adds that Zedillo may change his public image: ``To be politically appealing, he will have to go in the direction of Colosio to counter the weakness of the Salinas administration, exposed so dramatically in Chiapas, which is the lack of emphasis on the distribution of economic growth.'' Indeed, in his March 29 acceptance speech, Zedillo continually invoked Colosio's name and the same campaign themes. ``We're not starting a campaign, we're continuing it,'' he said.

Political scientist Denise Dresser disagrees. She thinks Zedillo will pick up Colosio's agenda and run with it. ``The PRI can afford to push democratization, it can afford to be generous because it has a very good chance of winning in clean elections,'' says Ms. Dresser, a professor at the Autonomous Technological Institute of Mexico.

Dresser predicts Zedillo will be able to capitalize on the public's insecurity caused by the Colosio assassination, the kidnapping of a prominent banker this month, and the January uprising of Mayan Indians in Chiapas. ``The PRI portrays itself as the force of the center, of stability,'' Dresser says.

But the left is portraying the government and the PRI as the source of the instability, including the assassination. A poll conducted by Mr. Basanez of high-income Mexico City residents on March 28 showed only 7 percent believe the man captured for killing Colosio acted alone; 32 percent believe the PRI is involved in the murder, and 70 percent don't believe the government will be honest about it.

Suspicions of PRI involvement may come from the battle within the PRI between reformers (known as yuppie technocrats) and traditionalists (known as dinosaurs). The traditionalists have fought Salinas's economic and political reforms.

The unveiling of Zedillo's candidacy, which came sooner than most PRI insiders expected, may have been expedited to distract public attention from conspiracy theories fueled by new evidence indicating that Colosio's alleged assassin had accomplices.

An amateur photographer produced a video tape that appears to show Tranquilino Sanchez Venegas, a retired security guard, clearing a path through the crowd to aid the alleged murderer Mario Aburto Martinez.

Mexican newspapers on March 29 quoted Mr. Aburto's girlfriend as saying the two men met in a Tijuana park 11 days before the assassination. Mr. Sanchez Venegas is now in custody. A Tijuana PRI party boss, who Sanchez Venegas says hired him for crowd control during Colosio's campaign stop, is also being questioned by police.

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