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Ernesto Zedillo, President-in-Training : Mexico: The new candidate will benefit from Colosio’s martyrdom aura, but only if he can develop political savvy to manage his fractious party.

<i> Denise Dresser is a professor of political science at the Autonomous Technological Institute of Mexico (ITAM) and a visiting scholar at USC. </i>

For all that is unknown--and may never be known--about the assassination of Luis Donaldo Colosio, it has revealed the Mexican political class at war with itself. The battle over the course of Mexico’s future--the choice of a successor to Colosio’s candidacy--lasted several days behind closed doors at Los Pinos, the presidential residence. The power struggle pitted President Carlos Salinas de Gortari against Colosio supporters, reformists against the old guard and, ultimately, the PRI against the PRI. While one faction supported Fernando Ortiz Arana, the emblematic “party man” and president of the PRI (the Institutional Revolutionary Party), hard-liners advocated the return of the emblematic “law and order man” and former minister of the interior, Fernando Gutierrez Barrios.

A weakened and overwhelmed Salinas finally prevailed, imposing his choice, the technocrat Ernesto Zedillo Ponce de Leon, on a disgruntled, divided party. But the “Salinistas” have not yet won the war. Zedillo now faces the daunting task of constructing a base of support among the disputing factions, many of which vehemently opposed his candidacy.

The Yale-trained economist is not without significant allies: Mexico’s technocratic bureaucracy, the Clinton Administration, domestic and international investors, the middle class and members of the country’s intelligentsia who believe that in an imperfect world, the dry and dull Zedillo represents a better option than a hellish descent into a Pinochet-style authoritarian regime.

But perhaps Zedillo’s most powerful weapon is Colosio himself. Upon his death, Colosio has been endowed by Mexican public opinion with the noble attributes he seemed to lack while alive. Among friends and foes alike, Colosio has been reinvented as a democratic hero, sacrificed while defending liberty, justice and the pursuit of happiness.

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Zedillo will attempt to seize the torch, further the Colosio cause and build on the political capital that martyrdom has so generously granted the PRI. Riding on Colosio’s post-mortem popularity and the assured onslaught of public support for the ruling party, Zedillo will probably win the August presidential election.

This scenario, however, will become less plausible if Zedillo is not able to develop and effectively employ the political skills he now lacks.

Admired for his technical expertise, Zedillo has been faulted for his political ineptitude. With an eye on grooming him for higher office, Salinas placed Zedillo in sensitive positions, such as the Education Ministry, in order to test his political skills. Time and again, Zedillo proved that he did not have any.

His tenure as minister of education was clouded by controversy stemming from his rocky relationship with the powerful teachers’ union and his attempt to institute new history books that mainstream academics found unacceptable. His next incarnation as Colosio’s campaign manager further diminished his image, as pundits blamed him for the campaign’s mediocrity and mishaps.

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In order to survive as a candidate and as a president, Zedillo will have to reinvent himself as a savvy politician.

The power struggle within the PRI may subside until the election is over and a semblance of normalcy is temporarily restored throughout the country. Adversaries within the PRI will unite to assure the party’s survival in a contested and internationally supervised election. But Zedillo’s perceived weaknesses and the vacuum created by Colosio’s death have opened up windows of opportunity for feuding factions. Dinosaurs and democrats, traditionalists and technocrats, members of the “old” PRI and militants of the “new” PRI will all try to claim Zedillo as one of their own and exploit his need for political expertise to further their agendas.

Additionally, Zedillo’s well-known political alliance with Jose Cordoba, Salinas’ controversial chief of staff (he was “reassigned” Wednesday), raises questions about his independence and whether the outgoing president will attempt to govern behind the scenes.

Now at the helm of a leaky boat navigating through troubled waters, Zedillo must prove to the country and to his party that he can be a pilot and not merely a puppet.


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