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The PRI's Next Choice

Could an election convention in Mexico replace the dedazo?

MEXICO mourns the loss of the slain Luis Donaldo Colosio, for his family. The country also grieves for the loss of its nonviolent political tradition. There had not been a political assassination of this magnitude since 1928. No other country in the world can boast of Mexico's record of having 10 consecutive presidents elected with each serving a full term in office.

Yet as the political forces react to this blow, an opportunity approaches for President Carlos Salinas de Gortari to honor his oft-stated desire to increase democracy over autocracy.

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There are two ``who'' questions now to be answered: Who was behind Mr. Colosio's assassination; and who will emerge as the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party's (PRI) new candidate? If tradition holds, a standard-bearer will quickly be chosen behind closed doors by the PRI's inner circle.

As this private selection process goes on, the motive for the killing is unknown. The alleged gunman, a 23-year-old Tijuana resident, Mario Aburto Martinez, reportedly told police he is a pacifist and that ``I saved Mexico.'' But when he said he wouldn't talk, even if tortured, rumors began that he had something to hide.

Motives, although highly speculative, are always available in Mexico. Were PRI leaders disturbed by Colosio's recent strong statements about cleaning up rampant corruption, hardly professions of loyalty to the party? Were other political parties behind the crime? Or is Mr. Martinez just a lone actor with a hatred for the ruling party, the president, or the system?

Observers tend to rule out a grudge by the assassin against Colosio himself, who was one of the most gregarious and likable of all Mexican politicians.

BUT for the PRI there is now a constitutional problem caused by the timing of the killing. Article 82 of the Mexican Constitution says that no one who has been a state governor or cabinet officer within six months of the election is eligible to run for the presidency. The election is less than five months away. That eliminates Finance Minister Pedro Aspe Armella, the darling of the business community.

Within the party, the field has been narrowed to three: Former Mexico City mayor, Manuel Camacho Solis, appointed as Peace Commissioner for the Chiapas uprising, former Education Secretary Ernesto Zedillo Ponce de Leon, and Fernando Ortiz Arana, PRI party president and something of a party hack.

Mr. Camacho is popular with PRI liberals but distrusted by conservatives and unacceptable to Televisa, the inordinately powerful Mexican television monopoly. Camacho had been passed over when Colosio was chosen by President Salinas, but with uncanny timing, he had publicly renounced presidential ambitions with any other party the day before Colosio was killed. Camacho is eligible because he left the cabinet in early January to deal with the situation in Chiapas, where he has received high marks.

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Mr. Zedillo, reported to be a favorite of Salinas, is a competent administrator. He is cleared to run because he had resigned from the cabinet last November to manage Colosio's campaign.

But now the PRI faces a curious opportunity. If Salinas is serious about advancing democracy, he could consider beginning within the PRI with some sort of nominating convention. This might replace the traditional method, in which he simply chooses his successor. The dedazo (pointing the finger) is the way it's always been done in Mexico but is hardly democratic. Writer Carlos Fuentes has come out strongly for an open selection process, saying such an action would honor Colosio's death.

Meanwhile the daunting problems facing Mexico remain in the wings. Many could be solved by increasing democratic action throughout the country. Starting by opening up the Mexican equivalent of the smoke-filled room inside the ruling party is probably too much to expect, but it's still worth hoping for. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.

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