Mexico's New Heir Apparent

March 30, 1994

Mexico's desperate need for stability following the assassination of its president-apparent has impelled its ruling party to designate Ernesto Zedillo as its candidate in the Aug. 21 elections. As an unabashed protege of President Carlos Salinas, the 42-year-old Zedillo will be welcomed by an international investment fraternity that has rejoiced in the opening of the Mexican economy and ratification of the North American Free Trade Agreement.

Whether he will be welcomed by the Mexican electorate will be the stuff of political speculation for months to come. Unlike Luis Donaldo Colosio, whose dreams of wearing the red, white and green presidential sash were shattered by an assassin's bullet last week, Mr. Zedillo lacks a born politician's flair and warmth. But like Mr. Colosio, he is dedicated to the Salinas reforms that are revolutionizing Mexico -- a fact somewhat overshadowed by the grievances of the Chiapas rebellion and the habitual complaints of the intellectual left.

First as Mr. Salinas's budget director, a post the president himself had held, and later as minister of education, Mr. Zedillo established himself as a tough administrator. He took on the National Teachers Union to instill merit differentials in salaries and to require periodic testing of teachers. His other innovations include throwing out textbooks imbued with authoritarian and anti-American sentiment, making education compulsory through junior high school and emphasizing the basics, especially mathematics, on the theory that Mexico can no longer afford current levels of illiteracy if it is to compete in the global marketplace.

Mr. Zedillo's approach to education reflects his doctorate in economics from Yale, and indeed he will be the third consecutive Mexican president with that kind of a background if he wins. That if looms larger than at any time since his party, known by its Spanish acronym as the PRI, established unbroken control of the government 65 years ago. He will be challenged from the left and the right, and under intense international pressure to run much cleaner elections than the tainted polling that brought Mr. Salinas the presidency.

Political fault lines in Mexico are much like a tangled spiderweb. They run from left to right, north to south, intellectual to professional pol, landowner to serf, reactionary to reformer and much more, with plenty of race and class and revolutionary rhetoric thrown in.

As for Mr. Zedillo, he states he has an "unwavering commitment to modernization," which, in our view, is the preferred formula for our important neighbor across the Rio Grande. He stands for much that Mr. Salinas has accomplished -- not least of which is an unparalleled improvement in relations with the United States.

A Mexico open to investment, industrialization and the political freedom unleashed by economic growth will be a Mexico that can cooperate in the control of drugs and immigration and in promoting the prosperity of the entire hemisphere.

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