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Ex-Backers Say Fox's Party Lacks Heart

Some who plan to vote PRI on July 6 say the PAN's improvements came at a price.

June 21, 2003|Richard Boudreaux | Times Staff Writer

MONTERREY, Mexico — As a foot soldier in the campaign to remake Mexico after decades of one-party rule, Felipe de Jesus Cantu can claim credit for one of its most open and efficient city administrations.

The 37-year-old mayor of Monterrey, elected on President Vicente Fox's coattails three years ago, has pushed through the country's first municipal "transparency law," allowing public scrutiny of anything from the city's payroll to contracts with its suppliers.

Getting a permit to start a small business here, a process that once lasted months and routinely involved bribes, can now take as little as 48 hours. A new electronic system tracks patrol cars, making the police more accountable and, many citizens agree, less corrupt. The city is greener, with new or refurbished plazas in scores of neighborhoods.

Nearing the end of his term, however, Cantu may have taken efficiency a step too far: He evicted 356 corpses from their tombs to widen a road, pitting a backhoe against enraged widows. Many voters who helped make Monterrey a stronghold of Fox's National Action Party say they are tired of this style of leadership -- industrious but aloof, bent on making things work but often insensitive, especially to the poor -- and are ready to sweep the party from power.

The changing mood in Mexico's third-largest city could be a bellwether. Monterrey was an early leader in the voter insurgency that eroded the monopoly of the long-ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, before Fox finally wrested away the presidency in 2000. Now his party, the PAN, is struggling to retain control of legislative seats, statehouses and city halls in nationwide midterm elections July 6.

Hurt by a stagnant economy and Fox's inability to enact reforms, the PAN is expected to remain well short of a majority in both houses of Congress -- regardless of whether it manages to erase the PRI's plurality in the 500-seat lower Chamber of Deputies, where none of the three major parties have a majority. (The 128-seat Senate is not up for election.) But the PRI's strong campaign in this northern industrial center could produce the biggest upset of the election -- and some early lessons for the race in 2006 to succeed Fox.

In Nuevo Leon state, the PAN has held the mayor's job for nine years in Monterrey and the governor's for six -- long enough to make an impact on the lives of the city's 1.2 million people. But voter surveys show the PRI poised to recapture both offices by wide margins -- a crushing turnabout akin to a Republican loss of Texas.

In interviews, many voters said the PAN had improved their surroundings while hurting their pocketbooks or their pride. Some longtime PAN supporters said they no longer felt bound by party loyalty and were attracted to individual PRI candidates who support Fox's free-market proposals.

"It's not that Fox and his people are doing a poor job," said Aurelio Collado, a political scientist at the Technological Institute of Monterrey. "But they sold the voters on this big idea of change and raised expectations impossibly high. Many people were let down. For them, the PRI has become the next option and is waiting its turn to get back in power."

In Topochico, a working class neighborhood of about 1,000 families, voters bought the PAN's promises of a booming economy -- Fox talked of 7% growth and 1 million new jobs a year -- and better city services.

In part, the city's administrators have delivered. At their initiative, Topochico and other Monterrey districts set up Community Action Programs, led by citizen volunteers who work with City Hall to identify pressing local needs.

Safer, Cleaner Streets

Marta Cavazos, 30, who runs an auto repair shop with her husband, said Topochico was a much rougher place in 1994 when the PAN took office and recruited her as a volunteer.

"Most of the streets were dirt, so we got the city to pave them," she recalled. "Then the gangs started taking gravel from the road crews, to use in their street fights, so we demanded protection.... Back then, the police never entered Topochico unless they were called in. Now we have two police posts, each with four patrolmen round the clock. They got the gangs under control. The streets feel safer." They are also cleaner; garbage collection has increased from one to three times a week.

Cavazos is now lobbying for a better drainage system to keep rain and Topochico's underground springs, which feed a mineral water bottling plant, from periodically flooding the streets.

Many people in Topochico insist, however, that the most important change has been the tripling of their gas bills and the 80% hikes in water and electricity rates since PAN governments withdrew PRI-era subsidies. With Fox's promised boom not materializing and wages depressed, they complain about another change: PAN administrations are more zealous about collecting those utility bills and cutting off services to customers who cannot pay.

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