MEXICO CITY — Since his inauguration in 1988, President Carlos Salinas de Gortari--elected under a cloud of vote fraud allegations--has pledged to make democratic reform a hallmark of his administration.
Yet, when it came time to choose his likely successor, Salinas embraced one of this nation's most undemocratic traditions: el destape, the unveiling.
Despite official pronouncements to the contrary, almost everyone here believes that one man--Salinas--decided Sunday to name Social Development Secretary Luis Donaldo Colosio as the ruling party candidate in next August's presidential elections.
The choice of Colosio, a Salinas protege, virtually assures his election to the six-year presidency. A candidate of the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, known as the PRI, has never lost a presidential contest.
The reliance on such an authoritarian, decades-old process by a president supposedly committed to political "modernization" and "civility" has outraged many here. Salinas pointedly discarded the public consultations, debates and candidate forums that lent a democratic sheen to his own unveiling six years ago.
"The naming of the presidential candidate is always an imposition, but this time Carlos Salinas and his team dispensed with even the formalities of giving the aspirants an opportunity," said Luis Javier Garrido, an independent political analyst.
Mexico City Mayor Manuel Camacho Solis, once a front-runner for the nomination, apparently was so enraged that he resigned his appointed post, breaching protocol by declining to praise Colosio.
But more serious than the bruised egos of the unsuccessful contenders, critics say, is the damage the practice of succession by presidential prerogative inflicts on party and government credibility. "What is really relevant is whether you can have a different kind of president when he has subjected himself to the same old selection process," said Jorge G. Castaneda, a prominent political scientist.
Six years ago, reformist elements led by Cuauhtemoc Cardenas, a former PRI governor, split from the ruling party after being rebuffed in efforts to open the selection procedure. Cardenas, who many say was cheated of a victory in 1988 as the presidential candidate of an opposition coalition, is running again in 1994 under the banner of the leftist Democratic Revolutionary Party.
Despite the furor surrounding \o7 el destape, \f7 few here appear to doubt that Colosio, if elected, will employ the same approach when his turn comes to name a successor in 1999. "Every six years, someone says this is the last \o7 destape,\f7 " noted Garrido, "and six years later, it's always the same thing again."
But this time, with the North American Free Trade Agreement debate subjecting the nation's arcane governing system to unprecedented public scrutiny, pressure is mounting on the domestic and international fronts for Mexico to put its political house in order.
In an article published this fall, Sen. Ernest F. Hollings (D-S.C.), a leading opponent of the free-trade pact, derided the PRI's "Byzantine ritual" of succession, saying it is "a process appropriate for a Yale secret society, not a representative democracy."
There are no guarantees, though, that Mexico's economic opening will herald greater democracy--much less signal the end of \o7 el destape.\f7
The myth-shrouded process is entwined with the nation's centralized political system and the near-imperial standing of the presidency. Apart from naming their successors, presidents also select hopefuls for state governors.