Ernesto Zedillo is an unlikely man of destiny. The stiff, scholarly, 42-year-old economist from humble origins becomes president of Mexico today in a time of great opportunity and greater trauma. Mexico can become either more stable, democratic and prosperous for its poor multitudes or more dictatorial, erratic and dangerous for the hemisphere. The status quo is not an option.
His Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), having ruled for 65 years, is in disarray, its leadership accused en masse of criminal conspiracy. Investigations of the assassinations of the presidential candidate whom Mr. Zedillo was picked to replace and of the party secretary general have hit stone walls. It is a crisis of national confidence.
Mario Ruiz Massieu, who resigned from the party and as deputy attorney general, charged that a cover-up obstructed his investigation of the September shooting of his late brother, Francisco, the party official. He has a "white book" of evidence to show the new president. The chief prosecutor investigating the March shooting of the original PRI presidential candidate, Luis Donaldo Colosio, concluded that although the trigger man is in prison, the crime is not solved, with 10 lines of investigation awaiting pursuit.
Rumors of entrenched corruption and narco-business bedevil both investigations. The opposition claims that politics is still crooked, elections still rigged. Mr. Zedillo can attain credibility only by ending the monopoly on power he inherits. That may be easier than it seems. With reductions in government spending destroying pork and patronage, PRI is collapsing amid recrimination. And in the southern state of Chiapas, the public-relations-spectacle rebellion by Mayan Indians remains unappeased after nearly a year of negotiation.
In such chaos ends the spectacularly successful six-year presidency of Carlos Salinas de Gortari. After "winning" the almost-certainly stolen election of 1988, he cut patronage and corruption, instituted reforms, revived the economy, reduced inflation, attracted investment and achieved the North American Free Trade Agreement with the United States and Canada. NAFTA initially has moved jobs from shoddy Mexican producers to American companies, but offers Mexico its only chance to move into the modern economic world.
Mr. Zedillo began before inauguration yesterday naming a cabinet that is strong in free market credentials, aiming to complete the unshackling of the economy begun by the past two presidents. He has sent less of a message on political reforms. But for NAFTA to succeed, so must the reformation of Mexican life. The crises greeting Mr. Zedillo result from entrenched opposition to reform. Mr. Salinas charted the way. To the untested Mr. Zedillo falls the burden of making it work.