Thu, Dec 07, 2006 - Page 9 News List

Calderon's cauldron is a tough mix

The new Mexican president faces the challenge of breaking monopolies and reforming the party system

By Jorge Castaoeda

Under dramatically inauspicious circumstances, Mexico finally got itself a new president last Friday. Felipe Calderon took the oath of office, braving the wrath of his left-wing opposition, out-smarting the Partido de la Revolucion Democratica (PRD) and its leader, Andris Manuel Lupez Obrador, but nonetheless paying a high price. TV news shows and front-page headlines across the world ran the story under the headline: "New Mexican President inaugurated in chaos and fisticuffs."

Mexico's institutions withstood -- just barely -- the onslaught of a virtually insurrectional left-wing opposition, bent in vain on stopping Calderon's inauguration, and of a resentful Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI), increasingly dedicated to allowing Calderon to take office, and then fail miserably. Calderon impressively overcame apparently insurmountable obstacles on the way to the presidency, yet the struggle to govern and transform Mexico has just begun.

Most Mexican commentators believe that it should be relatively easy for Calderon to improve on the largely self-inflicted failure of outgoing President Vicente Fox's term. Mexico needs to grow at roughly twice the rate that it did under Fox (a meager 2 percent per year). If Calderon can strengthen law and order, and use his considerable political skills to reach agreement with the PRI on structural economic reforms, he will succeed.

But this view is simplistic. Fox's term, along with the four last years of former President Ernesto Zedillo's mandate, was hardly a failure. Not since the 1960s had Mexico undergone ten consecutive years of economic stability, low inflation, low interest rates, a stable currency, and constant, though mediocre growth. For the first time ever, mortgages, automobile loans, and consumer credit became available to the lower middle class: this year more homes were built and sold, and more cars were bought, than ever before.

Likewise, while Fox can be criticized for not clamping down on protesters and a disruptive, extremist opposition, he never resorted to the bloody repression for which most of his predecessors came to be known. Moreover, he dragged Mexico out of its archaic foreign policy cocoon, and placed immigration and human rights at the heart of Mexico's new international agenda.

Nor is Calderon finding it easy to negotiate with the PRI, failing to build a coalition government, which he has repeatedly proclaimed as the solution to the gridlock that has cursed Mexico since 1997. Whatever the advantages of a Cabinet comprising solely members of his Partido Accion Nacional (PAN), this is not what Calderon sought. Similarly, no deal with the opposition was possible regarding the inauguration ceremony -- thus the chaotic, depressing scenes of congressmen fighting it out in their chamber, while Calderon was ushered in through the back door for a rushed ceremony.

Mexico's economic problems might be similarly more intractable than many commentators seem to believe. Mexico experienced a "cold-turkey" economic opening under former President Carlos Salinas from 1988 to 1994; a belated but successful political opening under former President Zedillo from 1994 to 2000; and, at long last, a true rotation in power thanks to Fox. But the foundations of the old PRI-corporativist system created in the 1930s remain untouched, and represent the main and most formidable obstacles to Mexico's growth and success.

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