Poll will cast Salinas as hero or villain: Mexico's President will make history if he cedes power to the opposition, writes Phil Davison in Mexico City

ON THE lawn of his Los Pinos palace, Mexico's President for the last six years, Carlos Salinas de Gortari, immaculate in black suit, tie and shining shoes, ran to take a penalty kick. Between the makeshift goalposts, Mexico's international keeper, Jorge Campos, a grey suit and tie replacing his dazzling World Cup outfits, caught the shot without needing to dive but fumbled the ball ostentatiously into the back of the net.

It was an amusing if bizarre sight, and the outcome said much about Mexican politics. If you support the system, as does Campos, you make sure the President wins.

Mr Salinas staged the penalty shoot-out for press photographers after a ceremony to thank his World Cup soccer team. 'Do you think it will go to penalties on Sunday?' asked a reporter, referring to Sunday's presidential elections for Mr Salinas's successor. 'I think not,' he replied.

Mr Salinas is due to hand over the presidential sash on 1 December. Whether he does so as hero or villain depends on Sunday's result. Ironically, only the first defeat in 65 years for his Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) could give him anything resembling hero status. He would go down in history as the first PRI president to hand over power to the opposition, and therefore the man who finally brought democracy, a la Gorbachev, to what has been virtually a one-party state.

His chances of a new career at 46, heading the new World Trade Organisation which will replace the Gatt, would also be enhanced.

If the PRI wins yet again, Mr Salinas may go the way of most former presidents, fading into luxury oblivion as a multi-millionaire. The probability that the opposition will cry 'fraud', and any indication that they are right, could cost him the coveted trade job.

Oddly enough, Mr Salinas's image abroad, boosted by his soft voice and shy appearance, is in sharp contrast to his image at home. 'He's tough and has a hell of a temper when riled,' says a former friend who fell foul of him.

When he took office in 1988 at the age of 40, his image-makers launched a massive campaign to bury the fact, even though it was judged an accident, that he had killed the family maid while playing with his father's gun as a child. His aides sought to suppress all books and articles that had mentioned the shooting and put strong pressure on journalists not to refer to it.

The son of a politician from the northern state of Nuevo Leon, he joined the PRI at the age of 18 and collected two masters' degrees and one doctorate, all from Harvard, before being groomed by President Miguel de la Madrid to be his successor. He was a skilled horseman too, winning a silver medal at the 1971 Panamerican Games.

If anyone had been fooled by the soft voice and paternalistic speeches, they were put right within days of his taking office. After a prison riot, police commandos killed 15 prisoners who, according to witnesses, had already surrendered.

A few weeks later, the head of the corruption-infested Oil Workers Union, Joaquin Hernandez Galicia, known throughout Mexico as La Quina, found out the hard way that Mr Salinas had an iron fist inside the velvet glove. A bazooka fired through La Quina's front door preceded his arrest and imprisonment on corruption charges.

Soon afterwards, Eduardo Legorreta, head of Mexico's most prosperous brokerage firm and a man who had helped finance Mr Salinas's campaign, was arrested and jailed for stock fraud.

For five years, Mr Salinas basked in the image, particularly abroad, of the man who had modernised Mexico's state-heavy economy, culminating in the North American Trade Agreement (Nafta) with the United States and Canada.

Then, on the day Nafta came into effect, on 1 January this year, began Mr Salinas's annus horribilis. The Indian peasant uprising in the poor south-eastern state of Chiapas highlighted the fact that the President, in his infatuation with his economic policies, had neglected political and social issues affecting the vast majority of his people.

In a recent interview with the Spanish daily El Pais, Mr Salinas said he learnt of the existence of the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN) only when it took five Chiapas towns on New Year's Day. But media reports had spoken of a guerrilla movement as much as six months earlier.

Mr Salinas also miscalculated the extent of a split within his party between the so-called 'smurfs' - young US-trained technocrats like himself - and 'dinosaurs', the party's old guard. Many Mexicans believe the 'dinosaurs' were behind the killing in March of Mr Salinas's close friend and hand-picked successor, Luis Donaldo Colosio. Many also fear that the same old guard are determined to win Sunday's elections at all costs - through the kind of fraud and coercion the PRI has used for six and a half decades - and that Mr Salinas himself is now in the grip of the hardliners.

'Salinas has been an authoritarian President. His term is ending badly and we just hope it doesn't end in catastrophe for Mexico,' said Porfirio Munoz Ledo, a Senator and chairman of the left-wing opposition Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD). 'He has managed to create 24 multi-millionaires, among the richest men on earth, while multiplying the number of poor.'

Mr Munoz Ledo was referring to the fact that 24 Mexicans, most close friends of Mr Salinas, appeared in the latest list of the world's wealthiest people in Forbes magazine.

'The elections will be a historical disaster for Salinas,' said a leading historian and political analyst, Lorenzo Meyer. 'He opted not to proceed to true change towards democracy and an end to authoritarianism. He didn't want to be a Gorbachev. On the contrary, he quite deliberately used authoritarianism to impose his economic policies.'

(Photograph omitted)

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
i100 In this video, the late actor Leonard Nimoy explains how he decided to use the gesture for his character
Arts and Entertainment
Secrets of JK Rowling's Harry Potter workings have been revealed in a new bibliography
arts + ents
News
Down-to-earth: Winstone isn't one for considering his 'legacy'
people
News
news
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Sauce Recruitment: Retail Planning Manager - Home Entertainment UK

salary equal to £40K pro-rata: Sauce Recruitment: Are you available to start a...

Ashdown Group: Front-End Developer - London - up to £40,000

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Creative Front-End Developer - Claph...

Recruitment Genius: Product Quality Assurance Technologist - Hardline & Electric

£18000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The role in this successful eco...

Ashdown Group: QA Tester - London - £30,000

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: QA Tester - London - £30,000 QA Tes...

Day In a Page

HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?
How we must adjust our lifestyles to nature: Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch

Time to play God

Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch where we may need to redefine nature itself
MacGyver returns, but with a difference: Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman

MacGyver returns, but with a difference

Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman
Tunnel renaissance: Why cities are hiding roads down in the ground

Tunnel renaissance

Why cities are hiding roads underground
'Backstreet Boys - Show 'Em What You're Made Of': An affectionate look at five middle-aged men

Boys to men

The Backstreet Boys might be middle-aged, married and have dodgy knees, but a heartfelt documentary reveals they’re not going gently into pop’s good night
Crufts 2015: Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?

Crufts 2015

Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?
10 best projectors

How to make your home cinema more cinematic: 10 best projectors

Want to recreate the big-screen experience in your sitting room? IndyBest sizes up gadgets to form your film-watching
Manchester City 1 Barcelona 2 player ratings: Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man?

Manchester City vs Barcelona player ratings

Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man at the Etihad?
Arsenal vs Monaco: Monaco - the making of Gunners' manager Arsene Wenger

Monaco: the making of Wenger

Jack Pitt-Brooke speaks to former players and learns the Frenchman’s man-management has always been one of his best skills
Cricket World Cup 2015: Chris Gayle - the West Indies' enigma lives up to his reputation

Chris Gayle: The West Indies' enigma

Some said the game's eternal rebel was washed up. As ever, he proved he writes the scripts by producing a blistering World Cup innings
In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare and murky loyalties prevails

In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare

This war in the shadows has been going on since the fall of Mr Yanukovych
'Birdman' and 'Bullets Over Broadway': Homage or plagiarism?

Homage or plagiarism?

'Birdman' shares much DNA with Woody Allen's 'Bullets Over Broadway'
Broadchurch ends as damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

A damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

Broadchurch, Series 2 finale, review
A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower: inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

Inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower