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Culture : Enthronement or Election in Mexico? : E l destape tradition lets the president name his successor every six years. But that royal approach may be headed for a fall.


MEXICO CITY — Even the august Fidel Velazquez, dean of the Mexican labor movement, venerable pillar of the long-dominant Institutional Revolutionary Party, says it's time.

After more than six decades of national preeminence, Velazquez cautions, his beloved party must belatedly begin choosing its presidential candidates in a more democratic fashion--perhaps even adopting U.S.-style political conventions.

"Political times have changed," the 93-year-old labor czar--not exactly a wild-eyed radical--told reporters last week.

While party insiders tended to dismiss the old warrior's pronouncements--"You have to take Don Fidel's comments with a grain of salt," one young technocrat sniffed--Velazquez touched a nerve.

El destape (literally, "the unveiling"), that hallowed icon of Mexican political culture that has efficiently churned out future presidents every six years for more than half a century, may be experiencing its last hurrah.

This is traditionally the season when President Carlos Salinas de Gortari should be "unveiling" his choice to become the ruling party's candidate in next year's national elections. Because the party--known by its Spanish acronym as the PRI--has won every presidential contest since its creation in 1929, el destape in practice has meant that incumbents, limited to one six-year term, have the privilege of naming their successors.

It is a prerogative more characteristic of a medieval monarchy than a supposed democracy. All would-be successors are beholden to presidential caprice.

So peculiar is the myth-shrouded, long-inviolate rite of succession that it has its own vocabulary and scholarship.

Traditionally, the would-be candidates-- los encapuchados ("the hooded ones")--maintain a studied public aloofness from the fray until the president designates his choice. And then only the winner emerges publicly.

For generations, el destape has served as a kind of recurring national soap opera. In a nation lacking a tradition of competitive national elections, it is the drama of el destape that has provided political theater.

Along with national diversion, the practice has brought distress for the majority who are inevitably passed over--the ones who aren't on the receiving end of the president's pointed dedazo ("big finger").

Losing out often signals the humiliating end of public life for would-be candidates and their coterie of aides, all of whom have inevitably staked their careers on their mentors' potential ascendancy to the ultimate post in Mexican politics. In a cutthroat game with no second place, the aftermath can be brutal.

"It is not a very edifying spectacle," Lorenzo Meyer, a well-known political historian and columnist, noted recently in the newspaper El Financiero International. "The majority of Mexicans . . . are merely spectators of a process over which we do not have the slightest control even though it will, in good measure, determine our collective political future."

Ostensibly, party leaders agree on a consensus candidate after broad consultations. When the time comes for el destape, a key party functionary typically discloses the candidate's name amid great solemnity. Leaders then rubber-stamp the selection, all agreeing that the best man (for it is always a male, and he is always the best one) has been found after an arduous search.

But the facade of consensus conceals a privately acknowledged truth: It is the president alone who makes the final call.

That's not to say that the chief executive fails to seek counsel from party wise men and others. Indeed, with the prospect of Mexican presidential contests becoming more competitive--Salinas was elected in 1988 by a bare majority amid charges of fraud--it is essential that the candidate have the confidence of party loyalists who get out the vote and that he display some charisma on the campaign trail.

Six years ago, faced with a troubling "democratic current" within the party, then-President Miguel de la Madrid began to open up the destape regimen. Six "pre-candidates" including Salinas--then a somewhat-obscure budget and planning wonk not considered among the top two contenders--were named publicly and tasked with strutting their stuff before the party's many interest groups.

The ensuing pasarela ("catwalk") was a fiasco. The ever-present political infighting, always intense but usually suppressed, intensified and sometimes spilled into the public realm. Dignified it was not.

It is generally believed that De la Madrid pointed to Salinas as the aide judged best able to carry out the nation's desperately needed economic reforms. But, as always with destape , precise reasons are obscure.

This year, six more "pre-candidates" have emerged, all key aides to Salinas. Most, like their Harvard-trained boss, sport fashionable U.S. degrees--an almost-sure sign of membership in Mexico's elite.

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