Mexico's ruling party wants to end term limit

February 18, 1992|By John M. McClintock | John M. McClintock,Mexico City Bureau

MEXICO CITY -- Officials close to President Carlos Salinas de Gortari are trying to find a way to kill Mexico's most sacred political cow -- the constitutional provision that limits presidents to a single six-year term.

The officials are working on a change in the constitution that would allow the 43-year-old president to run for re-election and serve as long as 14 years.

Their view is that a single six-year term is not enough time for Mr. Salinas to complete his ambitious goals, especially the rejuvenation of an economy that seeks salvation in a free-trade agreement with the United States and Canada.

The re-election proposal was confirmed by two senior members of the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), including a longtime official who is one of the party's principal trouble-shooters.

The party members, who refused to be identified, said the Salinas officials are studying a U.S.-style, four-year term of office, with a limit of two terms.

Under the re-election plan, the president would finish his six-year term in 1994 and then seek two additional four-year terms, said the party officials who oppose the idea and think it would divide the PRI.

A presidential spokesmen denied that such a plan was in the works.

Opposition party leaders called it politically impossible to achieve, saying the no re-election rule was the basic gain of the turn-of-the-century revolution that overthrew Porfirio Diaz, a dictator who was "re-elected" to the presidency for 35 years.

But others noted that the all-powerful Mr. Salinas already has slaughtered similar sacred cows in reforming Mexico's land tenancy law, in easing repressive laws against the church and in his historic trade opening to the United States.

The re-election trial balloon was first floated last summer, only to be belatedly shot down by Mr. Salinas himself.

Yet the trial balloon was not exactly out of air. The presidency apparently began taking private polls to see what people thought.

According to Jose Antonio Crespo, a leading political columnist, the polls showed that most young voters -- the nation's majority -- didn't care about the re-election issue. Older people did, he said.

"The problem is really one of the economy," said Carlos Rico, a political scientist at the Colegio de Mexico, the nation's most prestigious think tank. "If things are demonstrably better by early 1993, I would expect that Salinas would have a good shot at getting a constitutional change passed."

"But if people are not getting any benefits from the economic modernization, he will have to surrender power in the normal way," he said.

While many foreigners praise Mr. Salinas's economic reforms, the promised benefits have yet to reach average Mexicans whose paychecks are being eroded by double-digit inflation and wage controls.

"I wouldn't mind seeing him re-elected. But first I want to see if this free-trade agreement is going to work and whether what he has promised will benefit me," said Carlos Rivera de la Garza, a 22-year-old engineering student who works two part-time jobs.

The Mexican expectation is that the free-trade agreement will lure foreign firms south of the border, creating thousands of jobs and alleviating the misery of 8 million unemployed.

But now President Bush may be forced to postpone congressional consideration of the agreement until 1993. The recession may make passage all but impossible in this election year because congressmen fear a backlash from voters who think the trade pact will cost them jobs.

The postponement to the spring of 1993 would be embarrassing, if not fatal, to Mr. Salinas' chances of seeking re-election because observers calculate he would need the constitutional change approved by the PRI-dominated Congress no later than March that year.

But if the U.S. recession ends by summer as many economists predict, Mexico's economy could pick up and buoy Mr. Salinas' chances.

In that case, his most severe test may be within his own party.

"I am worried that Salinas is being ill-advised and that his ruthless use of power [to be re-elected] will have untold consequences," the PRI trouble-shooter said.

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