MEXICO CITY — With Mexico's dominant party proclaiming as its candidate a government official who is closely linked to controversial economic policies, the coming presidential campaign here will be the most heated in years, with the main attacks coming from the leftist opposition, political observers say.
The Institutional Revolutionary Party on Sunday designated Carlos Salinas de Gortari, the budget and planning secretary in the present government, to be its presidential nominee. Getting the nomination is tantamount to being named president. The PRI, as the party is universally called here after its Spanish initials, has ruled Mexico for six decades. As Mexico's largest party and the one that funds its campaign with government money, the PRI can elect almost anyone to any post by a big margin.
Salinas' choice ensures that the economy will be the main campaign issue, one that is hard to defend. Salinas is considered the author of government policies that stress promoting exports other than oil to bring in needed foreign exchange and keeping government spending under control. The policy has shown some signs of success: Mexico's Central Bank is bulging with dollars. But inflation is running at a rate of at least 125% annually, the economy is growing little, if at all, and unemployment is widespread.
"This is the first election in modern times that comes in the midst of such a crisis," political writer Adrian Lajous said. "Those who oppose him can say he represents more of the same."
"The opposition can hit Salinas over the head with the economic issue every day," economist Jorge Castaneda commented.
The PRI campaign, which for the candidate means a long period of travel across the length and breadth of Mexico, is expected to begin before year-end. The election is scheduled for next July.
The PRI itself is showing strains over the selection of Salinas. Labor leader Fidel Velazquez quietly walked off the stage as Salinas began his open-air acceptance speech Sunday. A leftist faction within the PRI calling itself the Democratic Current all but rejected the choice because it was made in the old-style way, by the outgoing president, Miguel de la Madrid, and in secret. Such dissidence puts to the test the PRI's near-legendary ability to pull together at election time.
The usually fractured left-wing opposition has already begun to set the tone for the campaign. "This makes our fight easier. They have given us (a candidate) who is responsible for the economic policy that the country is suffering under," said Heberto Castillo, the presidential candidate of the Mexican Socialist Party, a newly formed union of five parties.
The Socialist Party hopes to increase its attraction to voters and become Mexico's No. 2 political party, a ranking held for several years by the conservative National Action Party. Besides the Socialist Party, at least two other leftist factions plan to run candidates.
A Western political observer suggested that, with the economy as the focus of the campaign, the left could make significant electoral and organizational advances.
National Action, which has yet to select a standard bearer, also criticized the choice of Salinas on economic grounds. "It means there will be a continuity of economic policy that has been refuted by sectors inside and outside the PRI," said Guillermo Altamirano, who heads National Action's delegation in the capital.
On Monday, the PRI began its traditional ritual of demonstrating support for its candidate. President De la Madrid called Salinas "a patriot, a convinced nationalist, a man of honor and integrity."
Leaders of PRI worker and peasant unions lined up in support, but Velazquez's Sunday walkout attracted lots of attention. The aging labor boss said he left the stage because he "felt like it."
Velazquez, who heads the country's biggest labor confederation, has made his distaste for Salinas well known. Just last week, Velazquez commented that he "hardly knew" the candidate. Some observers consider his protest a reflection of deeper PRI discontent. However, six years ago, Velazquez publicly opposed the nomination of De la Madrid but later fell into line.
Fit of Anger?
Another odd incident marred the unity fiesta. On Sunday, Alfredo del Mazo, De la Madrid's energy secretary and one of six PRI stalwarts whose names had recently circulated as the president's possible successor, mistakenly congratulated another of the six, Atty. Gen. Sergio Garcia Ramirez, as the winner. On Monday, political commentators speculated that Del Mazo did so in a fit of anger over not being selected himself.
In any event, his statement touched off celebrations outside Garcia Ramirez's home, and several PRI officials were caught off guard. One said about Garcia Ramirez that "the internal examination of the party has permitted the selection of the best man."
Such comments, broadcast on radio, were especially embarrassing because they revealed that, despite what PRI officials have been saying, party opinion had little to do with the final choice. Otherwise, they would have known ahead of time who the winner was.
The confusion played into the hands of the Democratic Current, which has charged all along that the PRI's nomination depended on the "big finger" of the president--meaning whomever De la Madrid indicated by pointing.
"The selection was made behind the backs of the party militants," said Cuahtemoc Cardenas, who was the Democratic Current's choice for the PRI's nomination.
It is not yet known if members of the dissident faction will bolt the PRI in protest. In the past, such desertions have always ended in the breakaway faction's fading into anonymity.