Fri, Sep 08, 2006 - Page 9 News List

Calderon's struggle for Mexico's presidency goes back decades

By Marc Lacey  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , MEXICO CITY

It was more than 30 years ago that a seventh-grade history teacher in Morelia, a quaint colonial city in central Mexico, went around the room surveying the career plans of his 12-year-old pupils.

There were future doctors, lawyers and teachers in the room; no surprise, as this was the city's leading school. But one boy -- chubby, serious, with a wild mane of hair -- announced that day that he wanted to be president of Mexico.

Alma Delia Alvarez Zamudio, a classmate who became a teacher, remembers the moment well.

"We all said normal jobs but Felipe surprised us all," she recalled. "He said it like he knew it was going to happen. He said, `presidente de la republica."'

As of Tuesday, Felipe de Jesus Calderon Hinojosa, 44, was on his way to becoming just that.

Calderon narrowly won victory in the July 2 presidential election and then withstood a challenge from his main opponent, the leftist Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador. On Tuesday morning, the country's highest electoral tribunal officially declared him the victor, and on Dec. 1 he will take office.

To call the balding and bespectacled Calderon a career politician would be something of an understatement. His first campaign, his family likes to say, came in 1962 when he was still in the womb. It was a governor's race in the central state of Michoacan that his father, Luis Calderon Vega, a prominent political activist who helped found the National Action Party (PAN), was managing. His pregnant mother was pitching in as well.

There were other races, many others, all of them family affairs. Young Felipe handed out leaflets when other children were out playing ball. He rode around in a truck with loudspeakers when his contemporaries were hanging out in the park.

And again and again, his father's PAN, with its pro-business and free market positions, lost.

Calderon, a studious, serious boy who grew up to be a man not all that different, was teased at school for trying to unseat the powerful ruling party, which in those days ruled Mexico with an iron fist. His father soothed him by explaining that opening up Mexico's democracy was a long-term affair.

It took decades, actually, until 2000, when Vicente Fox's presidential win ended 71 years of single-party rule by the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI).

Calderon was one of the many democracy activists across Mexico who made that defining moment possible. He used to round up neighborhood children to monitor polling stations in an attempt to catch the ruling party as it went about stealing the elections. Eventually, his name began to appear on the ballot, always as a proud Panista.

By the time Calderon was 26, he was a member of the municipal assembly in Mexico City. He was a member of Congress before he hit 30 and chairman of PAN at 34.

He even found his wife in the party, marrying Margarita Zavala, a PAN congresswoman. They have three children. Not surprising at all to those who know him, he proposed to her during a campaign swing in his hometown, Morelia.

After a stint as a graduate student at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard in 1999, Calderon served briefly as Fox's energy minister. He then initiated his own bid for the presidency, outflanking Fox's handpicked candidate, Santiago Creel, the former interior minister, in a November primary.

"He was always preparing for this," said Juan Luis Calderon Hinojosa, one of Calderon's four siblings and an aspiring politician himself. "It's no surprise."

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