Mexicans blame former president for nation's woes

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Former President Carlos Salinas de Gortari should be prosecuted and tried for causing Mexico's economic crisis, according to 95 per cent of those who took part in an unofficial nation-wide "referendum" last weekend.

The poll was organised by the Civic Alliance, a respected independent group best known for monitoring the country's elections, at almost 5,000 "polling stations". Of around half a million Mexicans who took part, nearly 80 per cent said the Mexican congress should reject a US-led $50bn (£32bn) bailout package as "a breach of national sovereignty" since it imposes tough conditions on Mexico.

Ninety per cent of participants said President Ernesto Zedillo should seek a peaceful settlement to the peasant guerrilla uprising in the southern state of Chiapas, where the army has driven guerrillas and civilian sympathisers into jungle highlands.

The "referendum" was, in effect, an escape valve for growing public frustration in Mexico over a series of political and economic crises. The Civic Alliance did not hide the fact that the wording of the three questions - and the subsequent public response - reflected its own views on Mr Salinas, the US bailout and Chiapas.

Coupled with the nation's deepening economic crisis, however, with the stock market crashing more than 6 per cent on Monday alone and the peso continuing its slide, the latest criticism of Mr Salinas and Mr Zedillo put further pressure on the latter's shaky government and threatens to be the last nail in the coffin for Mr Salinas's post-presidential ambitions.

The US Trade Representative, Mickey Kantor, told reporters in Washington there was now "clear stalemate" over choosing the head of the new World Trade Organisation, a post for which the US has been pushing Mr Salinas. Mexico's leftist opposition Party of the Democratic Revolution has already filed a lawsuit against Mr Salinas, accusing him of hiding Mexico's financial problems until Mr Zedillo, his handpicked successor, had been installed as president last December.

Although Mr Zedillo is unlikely to take any action as a result of the latest "referendum", he may well latch on to its criticism of Mr Salinas, a convenient scapegoat to deflect criticism of Mr Zedillo himself. Mexican economists, however, say Mr Zedillo, a close friend and protege of Mr Salinas, could not have been unaware of Mexico's growing financial crisis throughout the election campaign last year.

Political analysts and economists say public rejection of the US bailout are further evidence that both Mr Zedillo and the Clinton administration may have badly miscalculated the political effects of the tough conditions thought to be tied to the loan package. In Mexican diplomatic circles, there is increasing talk of a golpe (coup), although no one suggests it would be of the traditional Latin American military variety.

The ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, due to celebrate 66 straight years in power this year, may be seeking a mechanism to replace Mr Zedillo with a stronger figure. That, however, would be unconstitutional, would deepen the economic crisis at least in the short term, and may not be guaranteed the vital support of the armed forces, diplomats believe.