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Zedillo's New Political Crew

IN nautical terms, the public perceives President Ernesto Zedillo Ponce de Leon as a weak captain. Still, they expect he will ride out increasingly rough seas this year, even as he must steer around a political Bermuda Triangle within the next 18 months.

To his credit, the PhD-turned-national helmsman from Yale University has upgraded his political crew. In the past year, he has welcomed aboard the astute Emilio Chuayffet, linked to a venerable Mexico state political clan, as government secretary. This Cabinet post combines the functions that the FBI, CIA, and INS perform north of the Rio Grande. Its incumbent serves as the chief executive's key political navigator.

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Mr. Zedillo has also recruited as president of the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) the savvy Santiago Onate Laborde. This affable Mr. Onate knows every shoal and reef in his country's political waters, thanks to his having held a dozen positions in the government and the PRI.

Earlier this year, Zedillo took on the crusty, tough-as-nails Arsenio Farell as comptroller-general to combat corruption. The selection of this old salt transmitted a double message to the PRI's piratical old guard: "You'll not have to walk the plank for past plundering, but stand by to be keel-hauled if you mutiny against our current captain."

Onate, as first officer, will convene a meeting of seasoned Priistas in early summer to chart a course for their party and Zedillo. To prevent scuttling the ship of state and capsizing the PRI's presidential prospects in the year 2000, they must concentrate on three goals:

Accomplishing a smooth transition at the Confederation of Mexican Workers (CTM) when its nonagenarian chief, Fidel Velazquez, passes from the scene. Unless Don Fidel, organized labor's ancient mariner, leaves a political testament or the government intervenes, the next CTM boss could be the barnacled, vulgar Leonardo Rodriguez Alcaine. Although head of the big, muscular, and rich Electrical Workers' Union, he enjoys neither Mr. Velazquez's stature nor his skill in pacifying a poorly paid, restive crew.

*Launching a no-holds-barred attack on booty-hungry drug buccaneers, who threaten not only to "Colombianize" Mexico but to use their bulging treasure chests to infiltrate the PRI and corrupt more of its leaders.

*Preparing all PRI loyalists to work their fingers to the bone in soliciting votes - from steerage to first class - for congressional candidates in mid-1997, as well as for the party's nominee for mayor of Mexico City. A drubbing in these contests will weaken, if not deep-six, the PRI's chances of retaining the helm in the next presidential election.

With respect to the last point, the center-right National Action Party (PAN) has the best chance of seizing Mexico's political wheel. Both ex-party president and possible Mexico City mayoral candidate, Carlos Castillo Peraza, and Guanajuato Governor Vicente Fox Quesada, are riding a giant wave of pro-PAN, anti-PRI sentiment. Either would make a formidable presidential candidate, especially the dynamic, swashbuckling Mr. Fox. If selected as PAN's standard-bearer, he might assemble a unity slate composed of Panistas, opposition-party leaders, entrepreneurs, and intellectuals.

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Onate and the PRI have their work cut out for them to avoid the hazards of a political Bermuda Triangle bounded by a storm-tossed CTM, greed-propelled narcotics privateers, and a surging PAN that has begun to find its electoral sea legs.

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