MEXICO CITY — At their headquarters here the other day, about 1,500 members of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, the ruling party of Mexico for the past 58 years, breakfasted on scrambled eggs, refried beans and talk of democracy.
Between bites of miniature tamales, they heard party President Jorge de la Vega Dominguez boast, "We display with pride our richness of theory, of programs and of men, to continue the process of renewing (the party) and impelling the integral democratization of society."
After that florid announcement, it seemed appropriate for a reporter to ask some of those present which candidate for president they favored among the six under consideration by the party. The choice, officials insist, is to be made democratically by regulars such as those at the breakfast, who represented party-affiliated labor, farm and professional groups.
The question, posed at three tables of 10 party members each, was met with averted eyes and scraping forks. One man indicated his favorite with a thumbs-up sign--made below the table and out of sight of his companions. No one else dared offer an opinion.
Party member Javier Santillana dismissed the inquiry. "Maybe in a few days," he said.
"Not at this table, friend," said Fernando Rodriguez, who sat nearby. "We can't break the rules."
The rules, though unstated, are that it is best not to reveal one's own preference for president before the selection is actually made. After all, what if one's choice doesn't win? Conventional political wisdom here says that betting on the wrong "rooster" can be hazardous to one's political health.
Such caution is only one indication that this year's selection of Mexico's next president will be made as always, in secret and by the outgoing president--this despite earlier inklings that the process might be open to at least public scrutiny, if not participation.
The naming of the candidate for the PRI, as the party is known, far outstrips in importance the actual election, which is scheduled for next July. By virtue of the party's overwhelming national organization, control of the electoral mechanism and, perhaps, fraud, the PRI's candidate is a sure winner.
He will succeed President Miguel de la Madrid, who is entering the last 14 months of his six-year term. The ability of the president to choose his successor, as well as candidates for other major offices, is said to be the source of his power in Mexico.
"The President of the Republic will decide it," said Jesus Vidales Marroquin, an old-time PRI politician, in the newspaper El Universal. "It has always been like that."
In August, the PRI flirted with opening the selection to public view. Party leader De la Vega publicly named six proposed candidates, who then gave speeches on television. The move came in response to criticism that selection of the nominee solely by the incumbent president was out of date and unacceptable in a country clamoring for democracy.
The television appearances produced speculation that more public campaigning was on the way. It didn't turn out that way. The proposed candidates soon went into virtual hiding.
"The beginning was good, promising, but the system quickly went back to its old tricks," lamented Lorenzo Meyer, who heads the Colegio de Mexico, a think tank on the outskirts of Mexico City.
Left with business as usual, political observers are already looking to the next succession, six years away, for changes in the system, perhaps through primary elections or convention battles.
For now, signs that the old ways prevail are everywhere.
A few days before the PRI breakfast, senior party officials met with De la Vega in what was billed as a give-and-take meeting on the nomination. Instead, he told them flat out: "I don't want to pin you down to telling me which of the six you sympathize with. The important thing is unity, discipline, the party."
For the past two weeks, rumors of who will be El Bueno--"the Good One," as the candidate is called--have circulated about the capital with astonishing speed and variety. A candidate might be whispered to be a sure thing one day and, on another, be declared out. While it is improper to stand up and back a candidate, it is almost obligatory to try to guess--privately--who the winner will be.
It is generally thought that of the six originally named by De la Vega, three have a real chance. This is what rumor says about the possibilities of all of them:
-- Manuel Bartlett Diaz, 52, secretary of government (interior) in De la Madrid's Cabinet. A front-runner. Bartlett Diaz's attraction for some observers is also, for others, his liability. He is seen as a strongman, capable of disciplining a PRI that sometimes seems on the verge of splitting as well as opponents who are growing increasingly bold in opposing the government. His choice would indicate a perception that Mexico needs a firm hand to maintain stability.