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Bumps in Path of an Heir Apparent : Salinas’ endorsement carries drawbacks, too

The conventional wisdom has it that Luis Donaldo Colosio will be Mexico’s next president. That probably will turn out to be true--but not necessarily for the reasons found in the conventional wisdom.

Colosio, 43, a native of the border state of Sonora, is secretary of social development in the talent-laden Cabinet of President Carlos Salinas de Gortari. He was selected last weekend as the presidential nominee of the powerful Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI. But that happened only after Salinas privately selected him as heir under the old Mexican political custom dedazo, slang for being tapped by a very big finger.

Now Colosio must prove to skeptical Mexican voters, especially the country’s growing middle class, that despite being nominated under an outdated political process he is the modern leader who can push Mexico toward a new political future.

As the presidential nominee of the PRI, which has dominated Mexican politics from when it was founded in 1929 until just recently, Colosio is the odds-on favorite to easily win election in next August’s voting. While that’s a comfortable position from which to start a campaign, it also saddles Colosio with a substantial negative: As a PRI candidate he automatically is suspect to the many Mexicans who see the powerful ruling party as the epitome of the corruption and political backwardness that are retarding Mexico’s development as a democracy.

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The irony is that Colosio probably doesn’t need the PRI’s political hacks, whose skill at stealing elections is legendary, to win. He is a genuinely popular figure who is a natural to succeed the genuinely popular Salinas, whom the national constitution bars from reelection at the end of his six-year term.

The free-market reforms that Salinas has implemented over the last five years--among them drafting of the North American Free Trade Agreement with the United States and Canada--have revived Mexico’s economy. Significantly, the new government agency Salinas has created to make sure that economic revival reaches even the poorest Mexicans is run by his old friend Colosio. Against such a backdrop, Colosio clearly is a candidate capable of winning a fair, honest election . . . if PRI’s political dinosaurs, ever wary of any challenge to their power and perks, prove to be willing to have one.

Colosio, a onetime graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania, says he has no intention of reversing Salinas’ economic reforms or varying much from his pro-U.S. policies. He must make it equally clear in the months to come that he will proceed with political reform in Mexico, and he must impress on his PRI supporters that the presidential campaign is the perfect time to begin earnestly to practice such reform.


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