MEXICO CITY — The political party that has ruled Mexico for 65 years on Tuesday named Ernesto Zedillo Ponce de Leon, a Yale-trained economist and member of President Carlos Salinas de Gortari's inner circle, to replace its slain presidential candidate.
Zedillo, 42, automatically becomes the front-runner in the presidential election scheduled for Aug. 21. But he immediately faces the challenge of uniting a party split by a bitter power struggle. He also must overcome heated opposition from many of its militants who oppose him because he was handpicked by the president and has little political experience.
In a ceremony before a select gathering at the national headquarters of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, Zedillo accepted the nomination and pledged to continue the ideals of the man he is replacing, Luis Donaldo Colosio.
Colosio's assassination last Wednesday in Tijuana shocked Mexico and immersed the party in crisis. Zedillo was Colosio's campaign manager.
"I accept (the candidacy) absolutely aware that the best man to carry the PRI to victory and to carry Mexico to its aspirations was at every moment Luis Donaldo Colosio," Zedillo said. He swore loyally: "For Colosio! For PRI! For Mexico!"
The announcement and Zedillo's speech were broadcast on Mexican television from PRI's Salon de los Presidentes, where a large photograph of Colosio was prominently displayed. Zedillo mentioned Colosio's name 39 times in the 20-minute speech.
Outside, about 2,000 rank-and-file activists, mainly from the nearby state of Mexico, stood in the blazing midday sun waving PRI placards and chanting, "Come out, come out." Instead, a Zedillo spokesman promised them a chance to file through a multipurpose room in small groups to meet Zedillo.
Widely regarded as a brilliant but cold technocrat with little political experience, Zedillo had served as education minister before becoming Colosio's campaign manager. Previously, as head of the now-defunct Planning and Budget Ministry, he feuded over spending policies with Finance Minister Pedro Aspe Armella.
Like Colosio, Zedillo is from a modest background. Born in Mexico City, he attended public schools, including the unpretentious National Polytechnical Institute, before doing postgraduate work in the United States.
Unlike the exuberant, striking Colosio, his successor has a professorial manner accentuated by wire-rim glasses and close-cropped hair. Zedillo is often praised for his ability to express complex concepts clearly and simply.
His selection was welcomed in world banking and U.S. business circles because Zedillo is expected to continue Salinas' free-market economic policies, which have modernized the Mexican economy and catapulted it into the world's largest trading bloc, in partnership with the United States and Canada.
Zedillo is well known in global financial circles because, as an official at the Bank of Mexico, he renegotiated the private sector's international loans in the wake of the 1982 debt crisis.
The Mexican stock exchange, which had dropped 3% Monday and continued downward in early trading Tuesday, rebounded with the news that Zedillo was named. It closed slightly higher, despite the drop in international markets.
But within his own party, Zedillo may have trouble. Hard-line PRI traditionalists, who have felt their power erode under Salinas, had fought Zedillo's appointment because he is viewed as a Salinas protege. And some of the pro-democracy reformists also opposed Zedillo because they fear that he, like Salinas, will give priority to the economy at the expense of political reform.
The manner in which Zedillo was chosen--by the \o7 dedazo, \f7 or the pointing of the big finger by Salinas, exercising the privilege that outgoing PRI presidents have claimed since the party's founding--was a triumph for his mentor.
"Salinas won the power struggle and was able to impose his candidate," said political analyst Denise Dresser. "But the hard-liners have not given up. The struggle within the party is not over."
Not only the hard-liners were disappointed. Reform-minded activists also complained.
"We are disgruntled, not because of Zedillo himself, but because we are worried that a candidate selected this way cannot count on the support of the entire party," said Ramiro de la Rosa, political action secretary of Democracia 2000, a movement of mainly young party activists bent on reform.
"A divided party will oblige us to commit massive fraud on Aug. 21 in order to stay in power," he warned, one of the few dissenting voices at the PRI headquarters.
The question on everyone's mind is whether Zedillo has the political savvy to unite the diverse and disgruntled in the PRI and to guide the party from its worst crisis ever to victory in August.