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Fox Faces Thunder on the Left

November 26, 2000|M. Delal Baer | M. Delal Baer is chairman and senior fellow, Mexico Project Center for Strategic and International Studies

WASHINGTON — You would think that governing would be a snap in light of the glow of legitimacy and euphoria surrounding the history-making election of Mexico's first opposition president in 70 years, Vicente Fox. Not so. Fox won the presidency, but his party does not control either house of Congress. So the president-elect will have to be adept at forging alliances with the opposition, the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) and the left-wing Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD), to move his agenda forward.

Fox was able to accomplish this as governor of the state of Guanajuato, working effectively with a PRI-controlled Congress. However, forming congressional coalitions with the PRI and the PRD to pass legislation will not be an easy task in today's Mexico. All three major political parties are suffering an identity crisis in the aftermath of the PRI's defeat, and the ideological geography is shifting.

This is most evident in the PRI, where recriminations are flying. Party leaders blame their defeat on departing President Ernesto Zedillo and former President Carlos Salinas de Gortari, who are accused of betraying the party's revolutionary origins in favor of free-market orthodoxy. With its technocratic head decapitated, the PRI rank and file is likely to return to its populist origins on the left.

Some in the PRI, for example, will paint Fox as a reactionary tool of domestic and foreign capital. Toward this end, Fox's plans to open the electricity sector to private capital may provide a convenient opportunity for the PRI to shine up its populist credentials. This may seem hypocritical coming from the party that was responsible for opening the Mexican economy during the 1980s and '90s, but many priistas now feel that a hard left turn is the key to returning to power.

The populist wing of the PRI has a natural ally in the left-wing PRD. Cuauhtemoc Cardenas, the PRD's long-time leader, has not forgotten the insults he suffered at the hands of Fox, and his conservative National Action Party, during the campaign, and he, too, has announced that the dark forces of reaction have taken over the country and must be resisted. Indeed, exploratory talks already have begun between the PRI and the PRD to define a common agenda in the new Congress.

That these two formerly implacable enemies should reconcile is not too surprising. Fox's party is ideologically anathema to both the PRI and the PRD. Moreover, the PRI and PRD are political first cousins. The PRD was a breakaway faction of the PRI that opposed the free-market economic agenda in the late 1980s. Indeed, there even is talk of somehow merging the PRI and the PRD to create a grand new party of the center-left.

Fox is a shrewd politician who realizes that his conservative PANista origins tend to unify the PRI and the PRD against him. He has distanced himself from the conservative social agenda of the PAN on issues like abortion and religion, for example, knowing that those issues will surely unite the PRI and the PRD. Similarly, his business background as chief executive of the Coca Cola Co. in Mexico and Central America lends itself to facile political stereotyping. Thus, early on in his campaign for the presidency, Fox tried to avoid being typecast as a business reactionary. He incorporated prominent leftists as advisors, and his ideological identity began to blur.

Fox originally had hoped to play the game of alliance politics on the left in his favor. Inspired by the union of center and left political parties to defeat Gen. Augusto Pinochet in Chile, he spent much of the campaign arguing that Cardenas and the PRD should ally with his candidacy to defeat the PRI. He proclaimed often that he hoped to form a national-unity government that included both the PRD and the PRI in the Cabinet. In short, alliance politics was at the heart of Fox's strategy to win the presidency and to govern.

It now appears that the probability of winning over the PRD and preventing a PRD alliance with the PRI is remote. Fox's overtures to the PRD were rejected by Cardenas during the campaign and have been rejected again as Fox attempts to paste together an alliance-based Cabinet. This rejection is based partly on genuine ideological differences and personal rancor. Ironically, Fox has moved to the left without winning the support of Mexico's institutional left.

Moreover, Fox's tactical move to the left may alienate his natural allies on the right. No matter that he wore a blue shirt to represent the PAN's party colors every day of his long campaign. Traditional PANistas tend to be doctrinal purists, and Fox's nod to the left has worried some party leaders. The private sector also should be a natural ally of the Fox government. However, more than one magnate has muttered their concern privately.

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