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Struggle to Replace Colosio Reveals PRI Rifts

March 29, 1994|TRACY WILKINSON and JUANITA DARLING | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

MEXICO CITY — One by one, party chiefs, government ministers and potential candidates paraded in and out of the presidential mansion, stoic and mute. Throngs of reporters staked out nearby jostled for a sliver of information, a name. But, as the ritual of consultations continued Monday, the veil of secrecy did not lift.

Five days after the assassination of Mexico's probable next president, the ruling party was struggling to name a replacement. The delay in choosing a new candidate has exposed serious rifts in the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, and highlights once again its autocratic, increasingly criticized way of doing things.

Depending on the choice he makes, President Carlos Salinas de Gortari is faced with a virtual mutiny among party members, from either old-guard hard-liners or reform-minded progressives.

"Salinas is a man in a straitjacket right now," a senior PRI official said. "His choices are very limited, and he has very little room to maneuver. The longer it takes, the more poisoned the atmosphere."

The assassination last week of Luis Donaldo Colosio shook Mexico's ruling party to the core and has incited a bitter power struggle that seems certain to leave the PRI bruised and fractured.

Ernesto Zedillo, who was Colosio's campaign manager, is rumored to be the front-runner because he is close to Salinas and could be counted on to continue Salinas' free-market economic policies. But he is regarded as a cold technocrat who has little following in the party.

Party Chairman Fernando Ortiz Arana appears to have the backing of many traditional party stalwarts who have been waging a campaign to boost him and to block Zedillo. These hard-liners have felt their power erode under Salinas and oppose a Salinas protege such as Zedillo.

A likely candidate would have been Manuel Camacho Solis, the admired former mayor of Mexico City who was appointed as the government envoy to Indian peasants who rebelled in Chiapas state earlier this year. But Camacho Solis appears to have committed political suicide by flirting with an independent presidential bid.

Throughout the weekend and on Monday, a string of party elite, Cabinet members and other advisers arrived at Los Pinos, Salinas' residence and office, for consultations.

Limiting Salinas' choices is a constitutional clause that bars a presidential candidate from having served in a government post six months before the election. With voting scheduled for Aug. 21, the clause eliminates Salinas' entire Cabinet and all sitting governors.

In Mexico, where the PRI has held on to power for 65 years--sometimes through fraud--the presidential candidate is chosen personally by the outgoing president, rather than by a convention. Consequently, there is no mechanism for replacing a candidate.

As time passes without a candidate, PRI militants are becoming increasingly restive and vocal in their criticisms. Despite frantic efforts by the party hierarchy to keep all in line, the strain is showing. Party dissidents have renewed calls for democratic reform in the PRI.

The selection of a candidate was further complicated Monday by growing conviction among Mexicans that Colosio's murder was part of a conspiracy.

* POLITICAL DILEMMA: Democracy could be a casualty. World Report

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