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Mexico's Rite of Passage Goes Public : De la Madrid's Gesture to Openness Makes Pressure for More

September 06, 1987|JORGE G. CASTANEDA | Jorge G. Castaneda is a graduate professor of political science at the National Autonomous University of Mexico.

MEXICO CITY — The unveiling of Mexico's next president is only weeks away, and as usual, no one can predict the outcome. Every six years, the country goes through the ritual of discovering the tapado-- the hidden one--that is, the ruling party's candidate for president. And every six years, there is speculation about whether the selection process and the succession mechanism will function adequately and according to the traditional rule.

With regard to the innermost substance of the system, which has guaranteed Mexico's institutional stability and continuity for more than half a century now, there is no doubt that little has changed. The nation's next president will be the candidate of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), and he will be chosen solely by the outgoing chief of state, President Miguel de la Madrid. As always, the standards that govern the president's choice will remain individual, thus personal and unfathomable. His decision will be final--unappealable, irreversible and unquestioned.

In this sense, there is nothing new under the sun in Mexico in 1987, except that the resiliency of an arcane but effective political system has proved far greater than anybody could have expected five years ago.

Under fire--per-capita income has dropped nearly 15% since 1982 and inflation has averaged nearly 100% a year--the country's yearning for stability has clearly overcome its thirst for change.

But since nothing is ever simple in Mexico, this presidential succession is already turning out differently from previous ones. For the first time, the PRI leadership publicly and officially announced the names of six contenders and invited them to appear before the party's notables (and on national television) to express their views on the important issues facing the country.

Granted, the candidates were not asked questions, and the entire program looked artificial at times. And, granted, the decision remains in De la Madrid's hands. Nevertheless, the importance of the changes he introduced in the succession mechanism cannot be dismissed. They may be far-reaching, going beyond his original intentions.

To begin with, the formal unveiling of the selection process has made it more accessible to the nation's people. Until now, the succession was an event to which every politician and most businessmen and intellectuals devoted endless amounts of time and discussion, but which left most Mexicans indifferent. They would simply take note of who the lucky one finally was, and go about their business.

This time, a certain socialization of politics has taken place. In a country where more than 80% of the homes have television sets--the figure is even higher in urban areas--nearly everybody saw at least part of one of the contenders' appearances. Most people saw several candidates' presentations, and their relative merits, defects and overall performance became a topic of conversation throughout Mexican society, reaching beyond the political elite. Not that people are openly expressing their preference; there are hardly any mechanisms through which they could effect true decision-making power. But instead of the traditional indifference, there is undisputable interest.

If one believes that the root of Mexico's difficulties lies in the political apathy that has prevailed in the country for decades, any degree of interest in political affairs is a welcome transformation.

It seems undeniable that the contenders' "show and tell" has brought about at least an awakening, and the credit belongs to President de la Madrid--and to the political factions as well as the currents of public opinion that exerted pressure in favor of such a change.

Now that the contenders have had public exposure, it appears that some form of explanation of why the winner won and why the losers lost will be in order. Traditionally, there is no such explanation: One bright day, the identity of the PRI candidate is announced and everybody rallies around him, proclaiming him to be "the best." No reason is ever given for why the chosen one was designated over his fellows.

Things may follow that course again this time, but making the six contenders and their ambitions known has created a degree of pressure for an explanation of the president's eventual choice.

As with all matters in Mexico, almost anything can be done, but there is a price to pay for impunity. It would seem illogical for De la Madrid to make the competition public and then reject calls for an explanation of the criteria he used in his final decision. And if he does conduct this succession with openness to the end, a dramatic step will have been taken toward overhauling a system that has served Mexico well for nearly 60 years, but has now outlived its usefulness from nearly any point of view.

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