Mexico's Victor Faces Different Test

`MEXICANS want more of the same.

That would be one reading of the Aug. 21 elections, where a record voter turnout put another young economist in Mexico's White House, Los Pinos, and gave the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), the world's longest-ruling political party, yet another majority in both chambers of congress.

Indeed, Mexico's next president, Ernesto Zedillo Ponce de Leon, is cut from the same cloth as President Carlos Salinas de Gortari. Both are Ivy-league educated economists who grew up in border states with lots of contact with United States culture and business practices; they are big on free trade and letting market forces rule. More Armani-suit technocrats than baby-kissing politicians, they are, as ruling party traditionalists privately sneer, ``yupPRIs.''

But when Mr. Salinas took the reins in 1988, Mexico was in dire economic straits. His background was tailor-made for the challenge. Mr. Zedillo faces a markedly different Mexico. And there are nagging doubts, analysts say, that he has the skills for the job.

``Zedillo's biggest challenge isn't economics,'' says Jonathan Heath, director of Macroasesoria Economica, a Mexico City consulting firm. He notes the North American Free Trade Agreement is in place, inflation is under control, foreign investment is up, and the Mexican economy is gaining momentum. Mr. Heath predicts a 3.8 percent growth rate next year. ``Zedillo is coming into power when the major problems are social and political.''

Among the key concerns Zedillo faces are:

* Unrest in the state of Chiapas. Mayan Indian rebels shattered Mexico's history of political stability in January. They are still armed and threaten further attacks if the elections are deemed fraudulent. At the same time, the center-left Democratic Revolutionary Party is organizing protests over the PRI gubernatorial victory in Chiapas.

``If [rebel leader Subcommander] Marcos calls for nationwide mobilization, we'll have to see which radical groups respond,'' says political scientist Jose Antonio Crespo. ``But even a small minority could create a problem of ingovernablity.''

* A widening poverty gap. About half of Mexico's 93 million people live in poverty. The promised benefits of deregulation, free trade, and sound fiscal policy have not been obvious to many Mexicans. A perception that the rich are getting richer was underlined by a Forbes magazine report indicating the number of Mexican billionaires tripled during the Salinas administration. Zedillo promises more spending on education and health care. But he stresses that job creation through economic growth is the solution to poverty, unequal distribution of wealth, and other social ills.

* Democratic reforms. Zedillo promises to advance Mexico's democratic development by drawing a clearer line between the PRI and the government.

After 65 years in power, the distinction between party and government resources is blurred. During the campaign, farmers were told to vote for the PRI or government subsidies would be withheld. Zedillo also pledges not to handpick any PRI candidates, including his successor, as tradition dictates. But it is not clear that party hard-liners will allow such changes.

* Law enforcement and judicial reforms. Mexicans were shocked by the March assassination of the original PRI presidential candidate, Luis Donaldo Colosio. The kidnapping of two wealthy Mexican businessmen and the murder of Roman Catholic Cardinal Juan Jesus Posadas Ocampo, allegedly by narcotraffickers, have also focused attention on public security. The judiciary is permeated with corruption and Mexican police are often tied to criminal elements.

* Economic relief. Small and medium-sized businesses are crying ``uncle'' over increased competition caused by the new free-trade policy. They want government aid. Heath predicts Zedillo will try to pacify this sector rather than change economic policy.

Whether Zedillo has the tact, wisdom, and experience to negotiate these political curves is questioned even within his own party. Unlike Salinas, who was raised in a political environment (his father was a secretary of state), Zedillo grew up as the son of an electrician. Zedillo went to Yale University in New Haven, Conn., on a government scholarship. Upon returning to Mexico, he rose quickly as an economist in Mexico's central bank.

Under Salinas, Zedillo served as the secretary for programming and budget, and then suffered through a political flap over history textbooks as secretary of education. When Colosio was killed, Zedillo was chosen as a sign of economic continuity to a shaken investment community.

More at ease with a calculator than under klieg lights, Zedillo struggled through his campaign. He'd never run for public office. But the PRI political machine kicked in. ``I voted for the party and for stability, not the candidate,'' says Manuel Rodriguez, a PRI campaign worker.

Zedillo does have some political advantages that Salinas lacked. Though both garnered just over 50 percent of the vote, Zedillo has a stronger mandate than Salinas. Questions over the legitimacy of Salinas's 1988 victory hampered his effectiveness early on. But Zedillo won with the largest voter turnout in Mexican history. And electoral observers - while noting serious fraud and intimidation -

consider these the cleanest Mexican elections ever.

Plus, Mr. Crespo says, Zedillo has fewer political debts to pay. His truncated campaign did not leave much time to run up a big patronage bill. ``Zedillo owes the party `dinosaurs' something for their support, but compared to Salinas, he's got more room to maneuver,'' Crespo says.

A high-ranking PRI government official describes Zedillo as a better economist than politician. Still, he observes, Zedillo is developing and ``nobody gets to be president of Mexico without a fair dose of political savvy.''

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