Fox Faces Showdown in Mexico


Keynoting what was billed as "unity rally" in Acapulco, former Mexico City Mayor Rosario Robles laid it on thick and heavy for the troops. The current national president of the opposition, center-left Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), Robles took issue point-by-point with the country's two other major political forces: President Vicente Fox's National Action Party (PAN) and the former long-ruling Institutional Party of the Revolution (PRI). Upholding the PRD as the party of legendary nationalist President Lazaro Cardenas, the man who nationalized Mexico's petroleum reserves and implemented modern agrarian reform, Robles declared that Mexican oil was not for sale to foreign bidders and demanded that the corn and bean food staples be removed from the North American Free Trade Agreement. Ratching up the rhetoric, she then blasted "attempts to privatize" electricity, social security and public education. "A clamor is rising that says it is the time of the time of the people," thundered Robles. "It's the time of hope, the time of the PRD."

Surrounded by hundreds of party faithful, Robles was roundly cheered for her critique of the country's prevailing political drift. On July 6, the yellow-shirted members of the PRD's "Hope Brigades" will get their chance to change the nation's course when Mexican voters go to the polls to elect 500 new federal deputies to the lower house of the Mexican Congress as well as state and municipal governments in 13 states.

The vote comes almost mid-way into the Fox administration and will set the political tone in Mexico for the remainder of the president's term. Already lacking a majority in Congress, further losses to the opposition could stall the Fox government's initiatives on energy and tax reform. An outright PAN victory, which many analysts see as unlikely, might finally get Fox out of a political quagmire in which he seems to be stuck.

Beyond the immediate political impact the vote will carry, July 6 will be a proving ground for the 2006 presidential race. Several hopefuls are already mentioned as Fox's successor. Among others, they include PRI President Roberto Madrazo; former Foreign Minister Jorge Castaneda; former Chihuahua Governor Francisco Barrio of the PAN; and the powerful PRD mayor of Mexico City, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador.

While much can change between now and then, dissatisfaction with the Fox administration's record is widespread. Instead of the millions of new jobs promised by Fox, at least 300,000 previously existing permanent ones have been lost. His "educational revolution" has yet to materialize, with the public system mired in resource deficits, tight budgets and near-ritualistic strikes by underpaid and angry teachers. Moreover, the Chiapas conflict persists, and at least six guerrilla groups in addition to the Zapatistas have yet to lay down their arms in states outside Chiapas. And last but far from least, the horrific deaths of 18 migrant workers (including 12 Mexicans) in a tractor trailer last month in Texas is further heightening anger that no new immigration accord has been struck with the US.

In short, Mexico is mired in political deadlock and economic stagnation on many fronts.

Nonetheless, popular discontent with the Fox administration won't automatically translate into votes for Robles' left-leaning PRD and the down-but-not out PRI. Both groupings suffer from image problems related to scandals or infighting. On the national level, eight newer parties are attempting to rake political advantage from the mess. They range from the centrist Social Nationalist Party, which fancies itself as the ideological heir of the murdered 1994 PRI presidential candidate, Luis Donaldo Colosio, to the controversy-prone Mexico Possible Party, which besides supporting drug decriminalization and pro-feminist positions, is taking on the Roman Catholic Church for allegedly intervening in politics -- an official but regularly broken taboo in a formally secular country where the Church remains a real power. In a bold challenge to the men of the frock, Mexico Possible has filed federal charges against several of the country's Catholic Bishops for urging their flocks to vote against pro-abortion and pro-homosexual rights candidates.

Under pressure from the flanks, the PAN, which itself doesn't always see eye-to-eye with President Fox, is centering its electoral strategy on convincing Mexican voters to remove the obstacles-namely congressional opposition -- which have supposedly blocked Fox's campaign promises of great change. The PAN's principal slogan -- even transmitted in spots to captive audiences before they are forced to view the violent Hollywood action films on inter-city buses -- is: "Take Away the Brake from the Change."

Many people, disenchanted with political parties and politicians of all stripes, aren't buying any messages. Indeed, recent polls have shown politicians to be near the bottom of the list in terms of public confidence. It's not hard to find the reasons for the disgust. Although most Mexicans engage in a rat race to make ends meet on $12 or $15 a day, federal senators, for instance, receive hefty salaries of around $100,000 US dollars a year. Some mayors even earn up to $500,000 US dollars a year. While politicians live lives of luxury, popular ire is boiling because prices for basic goods and services keep going up without any real wage increases.

Resentment is mounting too about the amount of money spent on elections themselves, partly because of the frequency of elections (every three years for the chamber of deputies, and alternating years for state and municipal governments) and partly because of the handsome sums awarded to the parties under Mexico's partial public financing system. Easily, hundreds of millions of dollars will be spent on the July 6 election. Much of this windfall will go toward expensive ads on television networks, serving in effect as a public subsidy for privately-owned media giants.

With increasing frequency, political analysts like Jaime Castrejon, the former rector of the Autonomous University of Guerrero, comment about the crisis of political parties. "We're beginning to arrive at a democratic period," wrote Castrejon recently, "but we are beginning to see that the political parties are a grave obstacle in realizing it."

Both President Fox and the new Mexican Chamber of Deputies will get their chance to prove Castrejon wrong after July 6. High on their agenda will be reforming the energy production and distribution grid, fixing the crumbling social security system, reforming labor law, and reaching that ever elusive immigration accord with the United States.

Kent Paterson is a journalist based in Albuquerque, N.M.

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