Mexico Power Struggles Intensify as Fox Fades into History

By Kent Paterson

For Vicente Fox, the game is almost up. With only a little more than two years remaining in his term and with no sign of the "Great Change" he once promised anywhere in sight, Mexico's first opposition president is likely to go down in history as the "Great Frustrator." A bitter nail was hammered into his political coffin this summer when Fox's personal secretary and spokesman Alfonso Durazo resigned and charged the president with undermining democracy by promoting the 2006 presidential candidacy of Fox's wife, Martha Sahagun. Durazo accused Fox of resorting to the discredited practice of previous presidents who regularly named their successor before leaving office.

In characteristic Fox fashion, the president responded to Durazo's resignation by quipping that "Jesus Christ had his Judas too." Enjoying unprecedented power for a Mexican first lady, Sahagun was then forced to stride before the television cameras and declare that she will not seek the presidency in 2006.

The "Martita" flap was one manifestation of an intensifying power scramble as the nation's political actors leave aside mundane matters of state like enacting long overdue reforms and focus their energies on who will succeed Fox. In this vein, local and state elections leading up to the federal race assume symbolic and practical meaning. Lately, the results have been disastrous for Fox's center-right PAN party.

In four state elections this summer, the PAN conceded Durango, Chihuahua and Oaxaca states to the old governing PRI party while losing to the center-left PRD in Zacatecas. In local elections, PAN governments were even ejected from their longtime border strongholds of Ciudad Juarez and Tijuana. Only in Aguascalientes, where PAN candidate Luis Armando Reynoso cultivated an enthusiastic following partly because of his role in building a new soccer stadium, did the president's party win a governorship. Hardly a mandate for the right.

Anti-PAN factions, not the least the PRI, are thrilled by the election results. But their glee should be tempered by the dawning realization that a majority of potential Mexican voters view politics and politicians with disgust. Abstentionism in this year's races conformed to a trend in which more than 50% of potential voters simply stay home. Allegations of vote-buying, computer-aided ballot tampering and campaign finance irregularities continue to stain elections, helping fuel the cynicism. Voter alienation is likewise explained in part by the contrast between the cushy lifestyles of Mexican politicians and government officials and the working public. Aguascalientes maintenance worker Irma Villanueva might be typical.

The young, single mother must support an 8-year-old handicapped son on a salary of about $60 US dollars a week. To survive, Villanueva scrambles between government and private aid agencies seeking extra help for her son. "During the campaigns, (politicians) want to help," muses Villanueva," but afterwards they don't."

While Villanueva struggles to make ends meet, the head of the virtually bankrupt Mexican Social Security Institute takes in about $20,000 per month and the director of the financially challenged Mexican Educational Radio Institute draws a cool $13,500 per month. Federal deputies and senators earn more than $10,000 monthly, while local politicians sometimes give themselves $10,000 Christmas bonuses. According to El Universal newspaper, Fox and his first lady spent about $87,000 in public money on their wardrobes between 2001 and 2003, or about the equivalent of Villanueva's salary at current payments stretched out over a 28-year period.

PRD Troubles

Formed by PRI dissidents and leftists in 1989, the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) was viewed by many sectors as the force that would clean up government corruption, retain the social gains of the Mexican Revolution and promote greater democracy. Today the ray of the "Party of the Aztec Sun" is wavering Although the PRD is credited with instituting popular public works and social programs in where it governs locally, the party is burdened in debt and tarnished by scandal. Charges of nepotism, corruption and opportunism swirl around the PRD. Former PRD Senator Felix Salgado, who describes himself as a die-hard party militant, warns his political institute is in danger of "extinction" if it doesn't rectify itself. Salgado scores the PRD for drifting away from the issues of the social movements it once purported to represent.

Perhaps most damaging for the PRD has been its association with the so-called "videoscandals" aired on Mexican television earlier this year. The secretly-taped videos showed phantom businessmen Carlos Ahumada, an Argentinian-born millionaire who mysteriously rose from rags to riches, making payments to individuals connected to the PRD. Although members of his administration were implicated in the scandal, PRD Mayor Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador of Mexico City was spared direct involvement. But the popular mayor, who is widely considered the leading presidential contender for 2006, has other headaches. His neo-populist policies clash with many of the pro big-business policies pursued by the Foxistas, and now Lopez Obrador confronts a legal defrocking that would strip him of his immunity as a government official in order to face charges filed by the federal Attorney General of the Republic related to the expropriation of a private lot in Mexico City. A trial would bar Lopez Obrador from participating in the 2006 contest.

Lopez Obrador's supporters are not taking the legal challenge sitting down. Across the country, yellow-shirted AMLO brigadistas are fanning out with their message and mobilizing demonstrations on behalf of the beleaguered mayor. Backer Carlos Mendoza calls it a "ceaseless protest."

If current trends hold, Fox seems destined to lurch from one political crisis to another. Challenged by a PRI that is up in arms over the indictment of their former President Luis Echeverria for orchestrating a 1971 student massacre, Fox must also face angry union members who are organizing protests to save social security for government workers. Fox has not solved the Chiapas crisis in "15 minutes" as he once promised, nor has he made any significant progress on issues like crime. With Fox increasingly out of the picture, it remains to be seen if a divided PRI can stage a comeback, or whether other forces will rally to fill the big, empty boots of the man once praised by the US press as the breathing symbol of Mexico's great democratic transition. Meanwhile, many Mexicans like Irma Villanueva say they are waiting to for their nation's leaders to actually do something for the people.

Kent Paterson is a freelance journalist and author who frequently covers Mexico.

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