Struggle for Power in Mexico's Ruling Party

Successful economic policies gave `technocrats' the upper hand under President Salinas. But a rebel uprising and murder of his successor open the door again to traditional power brokers weaned on patronage and coercion.

THE assassination of Mexico's ruling party presidential candidate last month has reignited an internal power struggle between the ``dinosaurs'' and ``los yuppies'' of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). Caught in the middle is a politically weak substitute PRI candidate, Ernesto Zedillo Ponce de Leon.

The problem for Mr. Zedillo and the PRI, analysts say, is that he wields so little political power that the selection of his own campaign team - which typically forms the nucleus of the next government - is not in his hands but in the hands of those battling for control of the party.

The March 23 murder of Luis Donaldo Colosio left a gaping power vacuum in the PRI and a trio of ambitious politicians seeking to fill the breach. But their presidential aspirations were cut short when President Carlos Salinas de Gortari quickly chose Zedillo as the party's new candidate.

Still, investors worried about political instability are yanking funds out of Mexico. An estimated $10 billion of cash has flowed out of the country in recent weeks. And within the PRI, the tug of war continues between President Salinas's yuppies and the dinosaurs, as they are called here.

Changing guards

The elder PRI power brokers were raised on a tradition of patronage, coercion, and clearly defined paths to power. The PRI is the world's oldest ruling political party and has grown accustomed to using all means at its disposal to win every presidential election since its founding in 1929.

On the other side are the young, Ivy League-educated, reform-minded technocrats. ``Los yuppies'' first came to power under President Miguel De la Madrid Hurtado in 1982. The tradition has been carried on by Salinas.

After getting off to a shaky start by winning the 1988 elections by the smallest margin in PRI history, Salinas deftly consolidated his power. The success of his inflation-fighting, debt-curbing, and free-trade economic policies over the last five years has given Salinas and his ``technos'' an upper hand. Most of the traditional political class has been slowly purged from top government posts.

But this year, his last according to the Constitution, Salinas's political supremacy has been sharply weakened by the Mayan rebel uprising in Chiapas, slow-to-nil economic growth, the kidnapping of two top Mexican businessmen in recent weeks, and the killing of Colosio.

``The old fissures are open again,'' one PRI official observes.

Salinas moved quickly to assert control by choosing Zedillo to replace Colosio a week after his death. A solid, free-market economist, Zedillo is seen as a message to investors that they can expect continuity.

But inside and out of the PRI, Zedillo is not considered a strong candidate.

``He's a good administrator, but he's not a proven politico,'' says the PRI official. Zedillo has never run for public office. And Zedillo, apart from Salinas's backing, doesn't have a broad power base of party connections and supporters to unite the party behind him.

``There's enormous risk in the Salinas strategy,'' says Alfonso Zarate Flores, director of Grupo Consultor Interdisciplinario, a Mexico City political consulting firm. ``We need a leader, a political crisis manager in our current situation. And Zedillo's profile doesn't fit the requirements.''

Colosio was a young technocrat and Salinas prot too. But Salinas had time to groom him and develop party support. Colosio spent four years as president of the PRI, negotiating the selection of candidates, developing grass-roots ties, and collecting a store of political chips he could call in when needed.

``Normally, the destape [unveiling of the PRI candidate] is the result of years of harnessing forces and unifying a team. Zedillo's destape was done in a week, and it shows,'' says Arturo Sanchez of the Institute of Mexican Political Studies (IMEP). ``Zedillo is surrounded by disorganization.''

Part of the problem is that there are so many things happening at once. With only four months until the elections, Zedillo immediately picked up the campaign trail where Colosio left off. At the same time, he is disassembling Colosio's team and trying to bring his own advisers into key campaign positions.

Zedillo's limited circle

In Mexican politics, the circle of PRI campaign advisers and managers is traditionally a good indication of who will be in the next Cabinet. For example, Salinas was Mr. De La Madrid's campaign manager before moving on to head the secretariat of budget and planning. Colosio was Salinas's campaign manager, president of the PRI, and then secretary of social development. Zedillo was Colosio's campaign manager. But Zedillo, more of an administrator than political operator, does not have a wide circle of influential political allies.

``There are `PRI-istas' running like crazy rats from office to office [in the PRI headquarters] delivering their resumes because the new candidate doesn't know them,'' comments Carlos Ramirez, a leading political columnist at the Mexico City daily newspaper, El Financiero.

Even so, it does not look like Zedillo is getting much say about who will be part of his inner circle. His chosen campaign coordinator was replaced by Ignacio Pichardo Pagaza, former governor of the state of Mexico. And Zedillo's secretary of electoral organization is Humberto Lira Mora, a close ally of Mr. Pichardo. Both were chosen by Salinas and are not personally well-known to Zedillo, PRI officials say.

Analysts say these appointees owe their political fortunes to Salinas and Agriculture Secretary Carlos Hank Gonzalez. Mr. Hank Gonzalez is considered one of the most politically and economically powerful members of the PRI old guard.

The selection of Zedillo's team to date, however, indicates that Salinas is putting more effort into reassuring investors and ensuring the continuity of his economic program than pacifying the PRI old guard. Last week, Luis Tellez, the architect of Salinas's agricultural reform program (and subsecretary of Hank Gonzalez) was added to the team.

Mr. Tellez is considered more of a Salinas technocrat than a friend of the old guard. ``Tellez is a bridge between Pedro Aspe [Armella, Finance Minister,] and Hank Gonzalez,'' Mr. Zarate says.

Zedillo is seen as such a weak candidate, analysts here say, that he will need the support of the PRI elders to win the elections. Salinas has wrested control of the top government posts from the traditional PRI political class. But the party organization (and the affiliated labor unions, farmers, and professional groups that can get out the vote) remains largely in the hands of the old guard. Several attempts by Salinas to reform the party more to his liking have been successfully rebuffed by them.

Balancing old and new

The paradox Zedillo faces is that ``greater democracy'' and clean and credible elections have become key campaign issues. But the old guard is associated in the public mind with corruption and electoral fraud.

Colosio was aware of this and made a concerted effort not to tarnish his image by keeping his distance from ex-governors of the PRI. On a campaign swing through the state of Coahuila, for example, Colosio noticed that a former governor was riding in one of the cars in his caravan and ordered him to get out, according to Proceso, a weekly Mexican newsmagazine.

The PRI elders know that for Zedillo to win, he needs their support. Two letters of ``support'' for Zedillo were published on April 12 and 13 in Mexico City newspapers. One was signed by 57 ex-ministers and the other by 79 ex-governors and older PRI-istas. The letters, Proceso reports, were organized by Hank Gonzalez.

``This was a double message,'' Mr. Sanchez at IMEP says. ``One was a peace offering to say we're here to help you win the elections. But it also was to say, `Senor Zedillo, don't forget us. We can help you or hurt you.'''

The question, Sanchez says, is what will Zedillo's shotgun alliance with the old guard cost? Part of the answer may come in the next two weeks as the PRI's candidates for Congress are chosen. Normally, these selections are the result of intense political horse trading within PRI groups.

``The great conductor of this orchestra is Salinas,'' Zarate says. ``He will probably give the traditional political class more participation in the Chamber of Deputies and Senate than it has now. But he won't give up any Cabinet posts, which is the real circle of power.''

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