Mexican President Miguel de la Madrid has exercised his unwritten prerogative and anointed a successor: Carlos Salinas de Gortari, the lackluster but highly intelligent and pragmatic budget director. As the duly designated nominee of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, which has not lost a national election in 58 years, Salinas is assured a six-year term as Mexico's all-powerful chief executive starting in December 1988.

For more than a year we have had hints from sources in Mexico City and Washington that Salinas was the man de la Madrid would eventually tap.

Salinas, an economist by training, has been the chief architect of de la Madrid's attempt to rescue the Mexican economy from its enormous foreign debt and other serious problems. Salinas discussed some of the most urgent concerns in an interview with Dale Van Atta in May 1986. Salinas' wit, intelligence and almost total recall of facts and figures were impressive.

Showing the loyalty that is expected of a possible successor, Salinas wouldn't talk about his presidential hopes, and credited de la Madrid with programs that he himself had not only implemented but had also undoubtedly originated.

Salinas spoke of the "very drastic crisis" that faced the de la Madrid administration in 1982, and the desperate need to cut unemployment and "regain the capacity to grow." To engineer this rescue mission, Salinas said, he had submitted "very tight budgets" as a means of bolstering the private sector. He and de la Madrid had identified excessive government employment and investment as the chief causes of the economic crisis and inflation that gripped Mexico then.

"Let me tell you that public investment, which represented 11 percent of the gross domestic product in 1981, this year {1986} will represent 3 percent only," Salinas said. "That's a tremendous reduction in public investment. Public-sector subsidies in bread and tortillas have been reduced 70 percent in real terms in this administration."

No previous administration had dared to cut the subsidies on essential foodstuffs for fear of touching off riots, if not revolution.

"We have been upsetting many, many dogmas," Salinas said, adding: "At the same time, we decided to {sell off} public enterprises. When this administration began, we received 1,150 public-sector entities. And we have been selling, liquidating -- that's another dogma, or old rule, that we have broken. Never in this country has a public-sector enterprise been sold in the past. This administration {has less than} 690 out of 1,150."

Salinas also criticized "excessive protectionism" and retaliation that crippled Mexican exports. Salinas eliminated 90 percent of the import-license requirements that had been stifling trade.

Unemployment is still a terrible problem, Salinas acknowledged. "Every year, 1 million additional Mexicans enter the labor market," he said. "There are 40 countries in the world with less population than the additional Mexicans we have to provide with employment opportunities each year." Salinas and de la Madrid have attacked the problem by encouraging the private sector to create more labor-intensive industries.