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)

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