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Fox Extends Hand to Opposition in Mexico

Politics: In annual speech to nation, president shares credit with rivals in Congress for successes but says, 'there is still much to do.'


MEXICO CITY — Warning that Mexicans are growing impatient with democracy, President Vicente Fox opened a new legislative session Sunday night with an offer to work more closely with opposition parties that control Congress and have blocked parts of his reform agenda.

In his second annual Informe, the equivalent of a U.S. State of the Union address, Fox said all political parties share credit for his administration's gains--the relative stability of Mexico's economy; advances against crime, corruption and poverty; and the opening of the government to greater public scrutiny.

But he acknowledged falling short of goals to make Mexico safer, more prosperous, less corrupt and better educated--campaign promises that two summers ago helped him end 71 years of authoritarian rule by the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI.

"I know that Mexico demands better results. I know there is still much to do," he said. "The conquests of democracy are gradual. They are not achieved at once."

The speech, carried live on national television, traditionally takes stock of the president's achievements and spells out his goals. In Fox's case, it was an opportunity to build bridges to his adversaries.

Unlike his predecessors from the PRI, who ruled with legislative majorities, Fox has been thwarted by Congress. He is criticized for failing to work hard enough at forging alliances with lawmakers.

The cost has been high. Congress ripped apart his attempt to overhaul Mexico's ineffective tax system before passing a measure but cutting by half the revenue he hoped to raise. Lawmakers watered down his proposal to expand the rights of the country's 10 million Indians, halting a peace process to end the 8-year-old Zapatista uprising in southern Mexico.

Those battles, according to opinion surveys, have left Mexicans feeling that their popular president is losing control of events.

In recent days, the Mexican leader has adopted a more conciliatory strategy. On Saturday, he held his second meeting of the week with leaders of his own pro-business National Action Party, the PRI and the leftist opposition Democratic Revolution Party, or PRD. The two opposition parties together form majorities in the Senate and Chamber of Deputies.

All sides at the session said they agreed to seek consensus on Fox's proposals, including a bill to open part of the state-controlled electricity sector to private investment. That proposal is at the top of his agenda.

Fox told lawmakers Sunday that he was open to criticism of his proposals in "constructive discussion." He warned against partisan feuding as Congress approaches midterm elections next summer.

"We have a citizenry that is getting impatient with the lack of agreements ... that doesn't want confrontations," Fox said. "The country faces challenges that exceed the capacity of any isolated political force. Its transformation is possible only with the participation of all of them."

Scattered boos and hisses greeted parts of the speech, especially a promise to protect Mexican farmers against newly subsidized U.S. agricultural exports.

"From lie to lie," read one banner unfurled by legislators. "The countryside is still waiting."

But there was also warm applause, and a measured formal response by PRI Congresswoman Beatriz Paredes, speaker of the Chamber of Deputies. While criticizing some presidential proposals, she said the conflict between Fox and Congress is not insurmountable. "In Mexico, there is no crisis of governability," she said.

Indeed, Fox and some PRI leaders have found common ground on the electricity reform bill, isolating the smaller PRD in opposition to it. PRD legislators walked out of the chamber during Paredes' speech, protesting a deal between Fox's party and the PRI to allow only the PRI to respond.

Although Fox remains one of the few popular presidents in Latin America, with a 61% approval rating, the euphoria among Mexicans over his election has long given way to disappointment.

Fox's bold promises to create 1 million jobs and expand the gross domestic product by 7% each year have fallen victim to the U.S. economic downturn. Tens of thousands of jobs have disappeared, and Mexico's economy remains as flat as a tortilla.

Fox insisted Sunday night that his administration is on track. He was able to boast of 4.9% annual inflation, low interest rates and a strong peso--an enviable record compared with the financial turmoil unsettling much of Latin America. But he admitted that, under newly refined measurements, 54% of Mexico's 100 million people live in poverty--more than the previously accepted figure of 40%.

Law enforcement officials, he said, have arrested the kingpins of five major drug cartels, busted 20 kidnapping gangs and disciplined 10,500 corrupt public servants.

In addition, he said, his administration has made public spending more transparent, freed more than 1,500 unjustly held prisoners, given the public greater access to secret government files, and appointed a prosecutor to review disappearances of anti-government activists in the 1970s and 80s.

Fox promised that his anti-corruption drive would not become a political "settling of scores" against the PRI.

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