Mexican Leader Assumes a Heavy Mantle

Sworn in as president today, Zedillo must hit the ground running to tackle such thorny problems as the churning revolt in Chiapas, party infighting, and judicial reform

ERNESTO ZEDILLO PONCE DE LEON becomes president of Mexico amid much pomp and festivity today - only to face tomorrow the country's deepest instability in decades.

``He's going to have a rough first couple of months,'' says political analyst Carlos Elizondo Mayer-Serra.

The festering conflict in the southern state of Chiapas, a corrupt judicial system, and a deadly fight brewing within Mr. Zedillo's long-ruling political party are some pressing issues that will fall at the new president's feet once the inaugural dancing stops.

How the Yale-trained economist addresses those challenges will define the course and image of his presidency. Beyond that, how he chooses to handle this snake pit of problems will determine not only prospects for Mexico's stability but also its economic growth.

``There's a perception that the economy is fundamentally in much better shape than when [President Carlos] Salinas [de Gortari] took office'' in 1988, says Denise Dresser, a Mexico specialist at the Mexican Autonomous Technological Institute here.

The political and economic changes that Mexico experienced during Mr. Salinas's presidency have led to the turbulence that now confronts the president-elect. ``The concerns are for political stability over the next six years,'' Ms. Dresser says.

Untested president

Zedillo was a relatively unknown bureaucrat before Salinas picked him in March to replace the assassinated Donaldo Luis Colosio as the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) presidential candidate.

But since his convincing win on Aug. 21, he has scored points with many sectors of Mexican society. The former education minister has opened a dialogue with the political opposition to a degree unknown in this century and completed a tour with leaders of the US, Canada, and Central America.

Beyond that, though, what Zedillo will do as president is unknown. ``Despite all the commentary and speculation, we don't know much about what he's actually planning to do,'' says Luis Rubio, a prominent political analyst here.

Everyone agrees that Zedillo will have to hit the ground running. ``His effectiveness will be determined by how strong a presence he establishes, and how quickly he does it,'' Mr. Rubio says.

Chiapas is the top example of a need for fast footwork, says analyst Elizondo. The cease-fire that ended January's armed Indian rebellion is holding, but tensions have mounted as political and economic demands have gone unmet. What Elizondo calls a ``terrible dilemma'' will hit Zedillo his first week as he decides whether or not the state's governor-elect, PRI candidate Eduardo Robledo Rincon, will take office as scheduled Dec. 8.

``For the [rebels] and their supporters, Robledo has become a symbol of all that is wrong in Chiapas, and it's a battle they need to win,'' Elizondo says.

``But for the other side the same man symbolizes stability, the status quo, and electoral legitimacy. Playing with this election,'' he adds, ``risks tainting Zedillo as open to the kind of post-electoral arrangements that Salinas approved.'' Salinas has appointed interim governors to appease the opposition in several cases where there were contested gubernatorial elections.

Elizondo predicts Zedillo will ``stick with Robledo'' if the governor-elect demonstrates an openness to new political forces outside the PRI. But the likelihood remains that Chiapas will offer Zedillo some early fireworks, he says.

Closer to home

But Chiapas is not all Zedillo faces. The increasingly public rift within the PRI - which has ruled Mexico longer than the Communist Party ruled the Soviet Union - won't give Zedillo time to write change-of-address cards, either, observers say.

In the latest in what has boiled down to a battle between the PRI's old guard and reformers, the justice department official investigating the September assassination of PRI secretary-general Jose Francisco Ruiz Massieu last week charged top party members, including the attorney general, with obstructing his investigation.

Assistant attorney general Mario Ruiz Massieu - the slain party secretary's brother - quit both his job and the PRI, leaving behind what he says is evidence that proves PRI officials acted to protect party members who organized the Ruiz Massieu killing.

``Mario Ruiz Massieu's resignation places the ball very firmly in Zedillo's court,'' Dresser says. ``A key decision he will have to make is whether he is going to govern with, without, or against his own party.''

Zedillo has already spoken of electoral reforms and a profound reworking of the country's judicial system - from the attorney general's office to the courts and police - to boost democracy and restore Mexicans' faith in their institutions.

Observers here will take a close look at the Cabinet that Zedillo was to name at a press conference yesterday afternoon for clues as to how far and fast the new government is likely to push a political transformation.

Although little about the Cabinet's composition has leaked out, most sources assume that some familiar names from the Salinas years will stay on to steward the economy. ``That would allow Zedillo to dedicate more time to the urgent political and social issues he faces, while reassuring the outside world and foreign investors that Mexico will follow the same economic course,'' Elizondo says.

Still, he does not expect to see Finance Minister Pedro Aspe Armella in the new government, as many sources do. Though Mr. Aspe is perhaps the sign of continuity foreign players want to see, Elizondo predicts he will stay out ``for personal reasons.''

A key sign that Zedillo wants to open government to a broader band of the country's political forces came last week when the right-wing opposition National Action Party was given control of the congressional commission on public spending.

That, coupled with Zedillo's meeting this week with the left-wing Democratic Revolutionary Party - something Salinas never did in six years as president - is taken as an important sign of the new president's determination to relax the PRI's hold on power.

``This idea of governing together is not a tradition we have in Mexico,'' says Rubio, ``but apparently it is one Zedillo intends to develop.''

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