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Mexico Opts for Constancy : Economics Still Counts More Than Politics in Next Presidency

October 11, 1987|SERGIO MUNOZ | Sergio Munoz is executive editor of La Opinion, Los Angeles

Unless the unpredictable happens, Carlos Salinas de Gortari will be Mexico's next president.

In spite of a much heralded "democratization" in the process of selection within the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, this one, as the one before it, and the one before that . . . was decided by one person only: the outgoing president.

This is a regrettable practice that damages the country's reputation and hurts the civic conscience of its citizens.

However, this remnant of politics past should not obscure the truly relevant issues regarding the future presidency and, more important, the future of Mexico.

Trying to decipher how the selection process takes place is almost futile. Only the president and (maybe) a few people around him really know how it is done. Yet there are many theories that seek to explain it after the fact.

According to one of these theories, the president weighs the magnitude of the problems that besiege the country and chooses the successor accordingly: If the problem is political, the chosen one will be an expert in politics; if economical, the candidate should know economics, and so on.

Although there is a severe political problem in Mexico, which manifests itself mostly at election times and mainly in the northern part of the country, that problem seems to be pretty much under control.

The big issues for the 1988-94 presidential term are the nation's economy and its debt. Therefore, the selection of the Secretary of Programming and Budget should not be too surprising.

Anyone who follows events in Mexico will remember that from 1982 to 1985, the heavy favorite (both in Mexico and in the United States) for the presidency in 1988 was Jesus Silva Herzog, the secretary of the treasury.

Then, in 1985, there was a crisis in Mexico. The economy was overheated, and accusations and recriminations flew back and forth among President Miguel de la Madrid's key economic advisers. Silva Herzog won the fight and, victorious, went to the public and spoke about a possible moratorium on payment of Mexico's foreign debt. But in discussions with the economic cabinet, he took another line, which eventually turned the politicians against him. He was fired and the space for Carlos Salinas widened considerably.

Salinas entered into a pact with the new treasury secretary, bridged the differences and altered his policies as he pushed for his goal: to change the economic relations of the country, both internally and externally, through liberalization.

Salinas has been credited with raising the standards of competitiveness of the national economy, and that is the main avenue Mexico has to follow in order to survive in a more interdependent world market.

The selection of Salinas was received in Mexico with mixed feelings. On the unhappy side is quite an assortment of groups and individuals. The old hierarchy of powerful union leaders is mad. So are the opposition parties--the National Action Party on the right and the Socialist Party on the left.

Many more rejoiced. The Mexican stock market rose to substantive levels, indicating that the financial world is happy with the designation.

Salinas was the only logical choice of De la Madrid if he wanted to give some sort of continuity to his policies, considering that his was to be a government of transition. Where catastrophe had been predicted, there are signs of progress. There is a hard currency reserve of more than $5 billion in the treasury now. But there is still a lot of work ahead and continuity is a must.

The undeniable success accomplished by De la Madrid's administration, unfortunately, has not diminished the abysmal social and economical inequalities that have characterized Mexico throughout its history. Furthermore, the general standard of living in the country has suffered severely, inflation keeps growing, unemployment and underemployment are on the rise, and poverty is now more widespread than ever.

Facing this uneven landscape filled with contradictions is a young man, 39, with graduate degrees in economics and political science, who fought fiercely for the nomination and got it. As the representative of a new generation of politicians, Salinas could change things and improve conditions for more than 80 million Mexicans.

In his acceptance speech, he spoke of modernizing politics. He also said that elections should be "clean," meaning that the outcome should be respected, whoever wins. None of these promises are new to the rhetoric of the official party, but the fact that he does belong to the new generation of politicians lends some credibility to his intentions. That will be tested in future elections that his party loses. So far, the selection of the next president has had little to do with democracy, which remains an unfulfilled promise.

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