Mexicans cheer heir to Salinas


MEXICO CITY -- In a raucous rally, hundreds of members of Mexico's ruling party waved white, red and green banners last night as they celebrated the nomination of the man expected to be the country's next president, Luis Donaldo Colosio Murrieta.

They chanted the name of Mr. Colosio, secretary of social development, whose candidacy was announced in an unusually low-key news conference earlier yesterday by the leaders of the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI).

"This is an exceptional moment in my life, in my political career. I will put all my effort and energy at the service of the Mexican people in putting together a program reflecting the needs and feelings of the nation," Mr. Colosio said to the mob of reporters outside his office after the announcement. "I invite you all to join us on the road to victory."

The designation yesterday makes Mr. Colosio the heavy favorite to win election in August. The PRI has won every presidential election for more than 60 years, a feat that political analysts around the world attribute to a sophisticated system of election fraud.

Officials of the ruling party, known by its Spanish initials PRI, explained that they had met and decided that Mr. Colosio was the most qualified candidate because of his distinguished political career, his professional competence and his dedicated service to the country.

However, privately it was acknowledged that Mr. Colosio was selected in the same way as all other PRI presidential candidates before him, in a tradition known as "el destape," which means "the unveiling."

By this tradition, President Carlos Salinas de Gortari selected the candidate and notified PRI leaders of his choice. The PRI sees its presidential election success as giving the leaders it backs the privilege of naming their successors.

L By law, Mexican presidents can serve only one six-year term.

"[Mr. Colosio] is the party member who, because of his ample political experience, his social service and his experience in the party, is the candidate of unity and hope," said Fernando Ortiz Arana, president of the PRI.

Mr. Colosio, who earned master's and doctorate degrees in urban economic development from the University of Pennsylvania, was seen as a popular choice for Mr. Salinas because he is a close ally of the president. Mr. Colosio has risen through the ranks of the PRI. His candidacy is supported by all sectors of the PRI, so the party will be united as it enters the presidential campaign.

Born in the northern Mexican state of Sonora, Mr. Colosio's career began to soar after Mr. Salinas was named as the PRI presidential candidate in 1987. Mr. Colosio became the president of the party and then took over as coordinator of Mr. Salinas' campaign.

In 1992, Mr. Colosio was invited by Mr. Salinas to head the Department of Social Development. In small groups, Mr. Colosio appears self-assured but quiet. Before large audiences, however, he has a reputation as a powerful speaker. He demonstrated his public speaking skills last night, as he accepted the nomination of the PRI political council.

In the speech, Mr. Colosio stressed the importance of Mexican sovereignty. It is a question that is sure to come up in next year's campaign as the opposition candidates contend that Mr. Salinas sacrificed Mexican sovereignty time and time again so that the U.S. Congress would approve the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).

Critics of the agreement contend that many Mexican businesses and farms have collapsed because Mr. Salinas' reforms have opened the Mexican economy to a crush of foreign competition.

"The great battle of Mexico is for her sovereignty," Mr. Colosio said in an exuberant meeting of the PRI political council. "That is my conviction. We must define our own future."

Mr. Colosio invited opposition candidates to a debate, something virtually unheard of in presidential campaigns of the past.

'A political son'

"Colosio was more like a political son to Salinas," said Homero Aridjis. "He owes most of his career to Salinas and so it is more likely that he would continue to pursue Mr. Salinas' goals and programs. Through Mr. Colosio, the legacy of Mr. Salinas will continue."

Analysts said Mr. Colosio's grasp of politics would be vital if Mexico is to develop politically as well as economically. He supports NAFTA, the centerpiece of Mr. Salinas' sweeping economic reforms, which will eliminate tariffs on goods among the United States, Canada and Mexico.

And, it is believed, Mr. Colosio has significant grass-roots support. He is responsible for directing Mr. Salinas' massive public works program called Solidarity. That program took Mr. Colosio out into rural, impoverished Mexican towns nearly every week for the last two years, where he and the president would inaugurate new roads, clean water systems, schools, hospitals and housing projects.

Support of poor laborers and farmers is critical this year, because the PRI will be challenged by opposition candidate Cuauhtemoc Cardenas, a favorite of Mexico's downtrodden.

It is widely believed that Mr. Cardenas won the presidential elections in 1988, but the PRI seized control of the computers recording the votes and declared Mr. Salinas the winner with 50.3 percent of the vote.

"We have an intense campaign ahead," said Laura Alicia Garza Galindo, a PRI legislator in the Chamber of Deputies. "We are competing against candidates that are more mature and stable. And the people have many demands. But we will work hard and we will win."

Mr. Colosio's selection yesterday ends a national soap opera staged every six years in Mexico. Since NAFTA was passed by the U.S. and Mexican congresses, there had been feverish speculation over who Mr. Salinas would choose as the next PRI candidate.

Because there has been no tradition of competitive national elections, "el destape" provides the only political drama.

"It's completely archaic," said Sergio Aguayo, a political scholar at the Colegio de Mexico. "I mean, I suppose the president has sound decision-making abilities. But it's completely anachronistic."

Mr. Colosio was chosen out of five presidential hopefuls, including Manuel Camacho Solis, mayor of Mexico City; Pedro Aspe Armella, secretary of finance; and Ernesto Zedillo, secretary of education.

No opposition expected

But no one expects any sector of the PRI to come forward and oppose the nomination. Last night, the political council of the PRI -- some 238 members -- confirmed the nomination and announced that it would be presented to the delegates of a national assembly this week.

"But I can tell you, the vote will be unanimous for Mr. Colosio," Deputy Garza said. "The members of the PRI have one fundamental code, and that is that we support all decisions made by party leaders."

PRI officials insist that there is plenty of room for dissent in their party, and publicly, they all deny there is such a thing as "el destape."

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