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NEWS ANALYSIS : Killing Opened Fissures in Mexican Ruling Party : Politics: Power vacuum may bring reform, but so far it has meant instability. Some question Zedillo team's ability to cope.

MEXICO IN CRISIS. Power, politics and elusive justice. First in an occasional series

March 23, 1995|JUANITA DARLING | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MEXICO CITY — The bullets that ended Luis Donaldo Colosio's life also shattered the Mexican political system, rupturing the mythology of presidential invulnerability and leaving the ruling party unprepared to govern for the first time in six decades.

A year later, Mexicans are still picking up the fragments, trying to reassemble the system that assured their national stability. But like a jigsaw puzzle with missing pieces, the picture that emerges is full of gaps, power vacuums that never before existed.

The result is a potential for long-term reform unthinkable a year ago--though in the short-term, the effect is destabilizing.

After the assassination, a hybrid team of Colosio supporters and holdovers from the Carlos Salinas de Gortari administration was quickly assembled by the substitute candidate--and now president--Ernesto Zedillo. This group now confronts both a media-wise guerrilla movement in Mexico's south and the nation's worst economic crisis in a decade.

And dissident groups in Zedillo's own Institutional Revolutionary Party struggle for power with greatly fortified opposition politicians.

Colosio's assassination "was a real turning point in Mexican politics," said Denise Dresser, a political science professor at the Mexican Autonomous Technological Institute. "After his death, all the rules seem to have changed."

The clearest changes are direct results of the murder. Less clear, but just as important, are the effects of substituting Zedillo for Colosio.

"The assassination revealed the fissures in the political system," said M. Delal Baer, a Mexico analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

Because the assassination is widely believed to have been politically motivated, Dresser said, "it opened up a Pandora's box. It allowed us to see what was truly happening in Mexican political circles."

What was happening was a struggle for power and money that six months later claimed another victim, Francisco Ruiz Massieu, the second-ranking official in the ruling party, known by its initials, PRI.

"Even though the PRI won the (presidential) election, the assassination contributed to the erosion of unity within the party," Dresser said.

The blatancy of that erosion was not lost on investors who had put money into Mexico on the strength of six decades of stability.

The Colosio slaying "was also the thread that unraveled financial stability," Baer said. "The murder put political risk on the map."

As a result, in the three months after Colosio's assassination on March 23, 1994, more than $2 billion fled the country. That was the beginning of a capital flight that cost Mexico $20 billion before 1994 ended and led to a financial crisis that has cut the value of the peso in half.

The handling of the economic debacle has called into question the competence of the man former President Salinas chose to replace Colosio as the ruling party's candidate.

"Zedillo has been unable to end the power of the Salinas group, which is getting in the way of the executive branch's work," said Ramon Sosamontes, a federal deputy for the opposition Democratic Revolutionary Party.

Analysts generally agree that Zedillo has been unable to break the hold of Salinas' advisers because he has no one to replace them with. Prospective presidential candidates generally start forming their camarilla --literally, litter--of cronies a dozen years before they plan to run.

They also start forming a political base, as Colosio did by heading the poverty-alleviation program known as Solidarity. By the middle of an administration, the top contenders are usually clear. Both their support base and their kitchen Cabinet are in place.

As a dark horse candidate, Zedillo had few supporters or advisers.

"Zedillo clearly was not prepared," Baer said.

That has forced him to turn to Salinas and Colosio loyalists for advice and to the PRI vote-gathering machine for support.

"Zedillo had to rely on the darker forces within the party to get elected," Dresser said. "Is he now going to rid himself of the uncomfortable bedfellows he made during the campaign?"

As someone who is a relative party outsider, Zedillo may be far more willing to topple his erstwhile allies than Colosio would have been, analysts say. That could result in radical reform, or it could lead to anarchy.

"If the executive loses strength and the legislature does not gain it, we could face a problem of lack of governability," Sosamontes said.

However, analysts also note that Mexico could have faced exactly the same political and economic problems under Colosio as the country confronts now--and without any better leadership.

"People forget that Colosio caved into the party hard-liners on several occasions when he was chairman," writer and social critic Homero Aridjis said. "He was running a poorly organized campaign that attracted miserably small crowds. People thought he was going to lose or be asked to step down."

From Washington, Baer agreed.

"It is easy to bemoan what might have been, because the current reality is so dismal," she said. "But we'll never know."

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Mexico Watch

* Assassination: One year after the assassination of Luis Donaldo Colosio in Tijuana, the case remains a mystery. A1

EYE ON THE ECONOMY

* Trade: A big improvement in Mexico's trade picture in January helped send the U.S. trade deficit to record levels. Business

* U.S. policy: Mexico's crisis is forcing a debate about U.S. international financial policy; Who is running it, and who is benefiting? Business

* Technology: There is one phone for every 14.3 people in Mexico, compared to one per 1.4 people in the United States.

* Living standards: Average life expectancy is 72.9 years, compared to 75.9 in the United States.

* Work force: 32% of jobs are related to agriculture; the U.S. figure is 3%.

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