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A technocrat tapped for Mexico's helm

Miguel de la Madrid Hurtado, tapped last week as Mexico's next president, is more technocrat than politician. He will have a lot a fence-mending in the months ahead as he begins his presidential campaign.

His chief challenge will be to unify his unraveling party, the Partido Revolucionario institucional (PRI). The fraying results largely from the pressures of Mexico's oil-based modernization, which has brought spectacular economic progress but failed to benefit all its people, especially those on the lower end of the economic spectrum. And the soaring inflation fueled by oil wealth threatens Mexico's middle class.

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Outgoing President Jose Lopez Portillo has been sternly buffeted recently by criticism within the PRI over his economic policies. Mr. de la Madrid, Mr. Lopez Portillo's minister of planning and budget, cannot help being tarred with the same brush.

Moreover, Mr. de la Madrid's economic leanings are conservative -- like Mr. Lopez Portillo's. But he is perhaps more concerned with social issues than was Mr. Lopez Portillo. He worries about the millions of Mexicans who live on the edge of Mexico's economy or outside it.

These people, whose "marginality" is a political issue for the left wing of the PRI, are "the dark stain on Mexico's development," Mr. de la Madrid said recently. "We must without fail address ourselves to how we can solve their plight."

Such attitudes will make him more acceptable to the PRI's left wing and to former President Luis Echeverria Alvarez, who has been seen as miffed by Mr. Lopez Portillo's approach on social issues.

Part of Mr. de la Madrid's campaigning in the months ahead will likely be focused on bridging the splits that exist within the PRI. His success in this will help determine his effectiveness as president.

But before he assumes the presidency, Mr. de la Madrid will visit virtually every corner of Mexico in a grueling eight-month campaign for that presidency. He will get to know -- and be known by -- Mexico and its 75 million people as never before.

Mr. de la Madrid will be campaigning as if his political life depended on it. And in a way it does. Although the Mexican president has tremendous powers, the exercise of those powers relies heavily on how well the president knows his nation and its people.

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Now it is Mr. de la Madrid's turn. In a way, however, the campaign process in his case is even more critical than that of his recent predecessors -- for he represents a new breed of political leader, a technocrat more than a politician.

Actually, Mr. Lopez Portillo began this transition from traditional politician. He had been a political figure for years but was equally known for his academic work; all this predecessors had been principally politicians. Mr. de la Madrid completes the transition. He is not a politician but an economist, representing the technocrats who are coming more and more into their own in recent Mexican governments.

In this industrializing society, the trained engineers, economists, and other specialists are being called on to keep government, business, and even politics well greased.

And as speculation about Mr. Lopez Portillo's successor developed this year, all those in and out of the Cabinet who were considered most "presidenciable" were technocrats.

Mr. de la Madrid distinguished himself as a crisp thinker and came to be regarded as the most likely choice.

He was also a protege of Lopez Portillo, whom he studied under and from whom he once received the highest grade in the class.

Professor and student stayed close over the years -- and now Mr. Lopez Portillo has given his former student another prize: the Mexican presidency. It was his to give. In the Byzantine world of Mexico's sometimes confusing, often turbulent one-party democracy, incumbent presidents choose their successors. They have been doing it for nearly 50 years.

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