Salinas names presidential candidate to replace Mexico's slain front-runner

March 30, 1994|By Ginger Thompson | Ginger Thompson,Mexico City Bureau of The Sun

MEXICO CITY -- Struggling to reassure foreign investors and lift the devastated morale of its ranks after the assassination of its presidential candidate, the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party yesterday chose a bookish economist with little political experience as its new candidate for president.

Ernesto Zedillo Ponce de Leon, 42, coordinated the campaign of Luis Donaldo Colosio, who was gunned down last week in Tijuana. Mr. Zedillo, with a Ph.D. in economics from Yale, is credited with creating a government fund that saved many Mexican companies from drowning in the foreign debt crisis of 1982.

President Carlos Salinas de Gortari is widely believed to have selected Mr. Zedillo after five days of talks with other party leaders.

An unabashed protege of President Salinas, Mr. Zedillo -- if elected -- is expected to continue the economic reforms initiated over the last five years.

He served as education minister in Mr. Salinas' Cabinet until Mr. Salinas appointed him to coordinate Mr. Colosio's campaign in November.

"The economy is in a delicate position, and Mr. Zedillo superconfirms that there will be a continuation of Salinas' policies in the next six years," said Primitivo Rodriguez, a political analyst at the Mexican Academy for Human Rights.

"He is the candidate of the national and international financial community."

The Mexican stock market, the Bolsa de Valores, responded favorably to the choice. The bolsa index rose 11.44 points, or 0.47%, to close at 2,457.59. Trading amounted to 99.9 million shares, worth 1.713 billion pesos ($509.79 million).

However, Mr. Zedillo is not widely popular at home. He is described as politically cold and aloof and is blamed for the lackluster campaign of Mr. Colosio.

Mr. Zedillo has never run for elected office and has held no prominent positions within the party, known by its Spanish initials as the PRI.

The same was true for Mr. Salinas when he was chosen as the PRI's candidate six years ago. Many believe he won by fraud.

"Mr. Zedillo cannot win an election because he has no support within the PRI and no support across the country," said Ramiro de la Rosa, leader of a left-wing sector of the PRI called Democracy 2000. "He will only force the PRI to resort once again to fraud to win the elections."

The Aug. 21 federal election is just five months away, and it appears that at least for the first part of his campaign, Mr. Zedillo will appeal to the sympathy generated by the assassination of Mr. Colosio.

"In Luis Donaldo Colosio, the PRI had a banner of our ideals and aspirations; a defender of our values and principles; a promoter of welfare and justice," Mr. Zedillo said yesterday, in accepting the party's nomination. "Thanks to the effort of Luis Donaldo Colosio, the PRI marches toward a new era. . . ."

Mr. Zedillo shares Mr. Colosio's modest upbringing. He grew up in Mexicali, on the Mexico-California border, where his father was a construction foreman and his mother worked as a teacher.

In keeping with Mexican tradition, the bespectacled father of five was apparently chosen as the PRI candidate by President Salinas.

The custom of allowing a president to name his successor is called "El Destape," which means the unveiling. It has helped the PRI maintain its dominance of Mexican political life for 65 years.

But lately the process has provoked heated debates within the PRI and many hoped that the unveiling of Mr. Colosio would be the last. After Mr. Colosio's murder, some party members broke the traditional PRI-mandated silence to publicly announce their support for a particular candidate to replace Mr. Colosio.

Members of the PRI also openly demanded that a national convention be convened that would allow party delegates to select a candidate.

"The PRI is not a political party. It is only a tool for the will of the president," Mr. de la Rosa said. "We are not mentally capable of choosing our own candidate. It's as if there are no men in the government.

"We care less about who the candidate is," he added, "and more about how the candidate is chosen."

Mr. de la Rosa says he is unsure whether his sector of the PRI, Democracy 2000, will support Mr. Zedillo's candidacy.

Other PRI members were relieved by yesterday's announcement and said that presidential selection was the most efficient method of selecting a candidate.

Because of the fierce internal divisions that exist within the PRI, a heated national convention would further weaken the party, they say. And, they say, with elections only five months away, the PRI had no time for a national convention.

"The most urgent problem of the PRI is not whether it will be more closed or open," said Francisco Escobedo, who worked on Mr. Colosio's campaign platform. "The most urgent problem is winning the election. The challenge of making the PRI more democratic must wait until after the elections."

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