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Combative Politician Back on Mexico Scene : Politics: Vicente Fox says conservative PAN should abandon conciliation. New president could face more vigorous opposition.


LEON, Mexico — Vicente Fox, the tough cop of this nation's right, is back.

Within days of the federal elections in which his National Action Party (PAN) lost nine of its 39 seats in the Chamber of Deputies, along with making a disappointing showing in the presidential race, Fox announced he was ending his retirement from politics.

Today, in a closed-door meeting with party leaders from around the country, he will advocate abandoning the recent PAN strategy of compromise and gradualism in favor of a return to combativeness. If he succeeds, President-elect Ernesto Zedillo will face a far more confrontational conservative opposition than Mexico has seen in years.

"The first thing we have to do is start acting like an opposition party again," Fox, 52, said in an interview in the modest office of his vegetable-packing plant here in Mexico's agricultural heartland.

Fox advocates coalitions with the left, as well as street marches and demonstrations to protest voting irregularities any time they occur. He warns that the alternative is a disheartened nation where the 50% of voters who did not cast ballots for the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) have no voice in government.

Fox said he is returning to politics with great reluctance and only part time. But many observers believe this could be the beginning of a presidential bid in 2000.

"We have to strike up the war drums," Fox said. "Otherwise, the people of Mexico will continue with downcast eyes, eating beans and tortillas."

The meeting today is supposed to be an evaluation of election results. It is likely, however, to turn into an argument over how hard a line the PAN should take in the wake of voting that brought the party a record showing but fell far short of a victory.

Fox believes the elections' lessons are clear. PAN, he said, should join with the major leftist opposition Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD) to demand that Zedillo open up the government, recognizing that the half of the voters who cast ballots for opposition parties do not agree with current policies.

PRD representatives could not be reached for comment.

Fox envisions a broad coalition that would include business leaders and even PRI dissidents to work toward a level playing field for the next federal elections six years from now. "We have to decide whether we are going to keep dancing to the tune they play or if we are going to put on our pants and demand democracy and alternancia ," political parties taking turns in power, he said.

Of his approach, Baja California Gov. Ernesto Ruffo Appel observed: "Vicente has always been a person who was much more combative, let's say it that way, than other panistas. But that is an aspect of his personal style, his personal conviction, which is distinct from the party. He is a leader in the PAN, and that style of leadership may or may not be approved by a (party) convention."

The Harvard-educated Fox is not the only PAN activist to take an aggressive stance; he counts Guanajuato Gov. Carlos Medina and Rodolfo Elizondo, a former gubernatorial candidate in Durango, among his allies. Fox proudly calls himself one of the "Northern Broncos," a party faction that he likens to the rough-house fighters among professional wrestlers.

The differences within the PAN are not ideological but tactical, all sides stress. PAN leaders are united in their belief in free markets, small government and traditional Mexican values of family and church. Party leaders believe those goals can be reached gradually by building a grass-roots base and moving up via a cordial relationship with the government.

But other party militants believe in confrontation. Their cause was strengthened by Fox's return to politics. The former Coca-Cola executive's towering height, resounding bass voice and folksy analogies make him so charismatic that he had barely announced he was coming out of retirement when pundits began speculating he might be a candidate in 2000.

Fox's style is markedly different from that of PAN national chairman Carlos Castillo and Diego Fernandez de Cevallos, the presidential candidate in the Aug. 21 elections, who received 26% of the vote.

As PAN leader in the Chamber of Deputies, Fernandez regularly allied his followers with the ruling party in tight votes after reaching compromises in keeping with multi-party politics.

Castillo and his predecessor, Luis H. Alvarez, are widely believed to have negotiated the outcomes of fraud-ridden elections to secure for their party city halls, legislative seats and the first opposition governorships of this century.

Many observers believe they have greatly strengthened the party, giving Mexico the best hope in six decades for a multi-party system.

But Fox argues that the elections proved that compromise in politics does not work in Mexico. "We lost municipalities we had gained and did not carry elections in states where we have governorships," he said. "We're back where we started."

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