Mexico: Choosing a Candidate to Replace the Assassinated Colosio

March 27, 1994|By PETER M. WARD

Last November, Luis Donaldo Colosio was tapped by Mexico's President Carlos Salinas de Gortari to become the ruling party's candidate for the Aug. 21 elections this year. Most people hoped and expected that that was the last occasion of the traditional means of "dedazo" -- in which the outgoing president, in effect, simply picks his successor.

Mr. Colosio's assassination on Wednesday meant that, once again, dedazo would be the basis for choosing a candidate.

Timing for the announcement of the decision had not been determined by the press deadline for this article.

This is a largely unprecedented situation (no incumbent or candidate has died in office or on the campaign trail since 1928), and the ruling Institutional Revolution Party (known as the PRI from its Spanish initials) has no system of primary elections to select its candidates. They are largely decided upon by senior party and government officials.

Increasingly, however, this autocratic and highly discretionary system of nominating candidates sits uncomfortably in a country seeking to open up and democratize its political institutions and where one party no longer holds a monopoly on power.

Today in Mexico, elections are cleaner, more open and more competitive -- so much so that if the PRI is to win, it must present credible candidates to the electorate.

The irony is that despite the growth of greater democracy in Mexico, dedazo is probably the most efficient and undoubtedly the fastest mechanism available to President Salinas and the PRI.

This time, however, the president is constrained by a clause in Article 82 of the Mexican Constitution, which expressly prohibits from consideration governors or others who, within six months of the elections, have held senior appointed public office (Cabinet secretaries and under-secretaries, agency heads etc.).

Elected legislative office-holders are not eliminated in this way, so that he could consider senators and congressmen. However, they do not carry anything like the same "weight" as their counterparts in the United States.

To seek to amend the constitution in order to allow Cabinet secretaries to be included, would further exacerbate the uncertainty that currently exists in Mexico, and this is probably .. not an option, not even if it could be rushed through in a few days. Mr. Salinas and the PRI were compelled to act quickly to stem the uncertainty and to begin to rebuild national and international confidence in the party, as well as in its ability to win in August.

So what considerations are uppermost in the mind of President Salinas in making his choice?

First, he must choose someone capable of offering immediate reassurance to the private sector, particularly to business and commerce. The person selected must also be acceptable to the PRI, and perhaps even to those supporters of Mr. Colosio who have moved into senior party and campaign positions during the past few months.

Second, recent events in Chiapas, and the widespread support for many of the claims and demands by the Zapatista rebels in that southern state, means that the person must be capable of demonstrating popular appeal. He must be able to pick up where Mr. Colosio left off, to travel the country and be capable of inspiring the grass roots.

Third, the candidate must be capable of presenting a convincing case that he can, and that he will, address the regional economic, social and political disparities that exist in Mexico and which threaten to set the south apart from the rest of the country.

Moreover, he must show that he is committed to continue and to intensify the process of political reform.

If, like Mr. Colosio, he comes from outside Mexico City and the center of the country, then so much the better. This, too, will reassure people that he is one of them and that he will begin to reverse the traditional centralization of power in the Mexico City metropolitan area.

It would also help if was already closely involved in the campaign, but that is unlikely to be a prerequisite for his selection.

These will be the imperatives that will figured in the selection.

One obvious candidate, former Mexico City mayor and principal Chiapas crisis negotiator Manuel Camacho Solis, has almost certainly removed himself from consideration. Although he has many of the aforementioned qualities and would almost certainly have made an excellent president, he chose to break ranks with the party and with the president once Mr. Colosio's candidacy was announced, considering an independent candidacy on his own.

This has has been seen in many quarters as an extreme breach of loyalty -- a cardinal sin in Mexican politics. Simply put, he would not command the legitimacy and the support of the PRI. The rules may be changing, but they have not changed that much.

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