Union Tribune

March 2, 2003

Experts say frustration with Fox, politics harming Mexico


WASHINGTON – Mexican President Vicente Fox's failure to persuade a fractious Congress to adopt reforms badly needed following seven decades of one-party rule is hurting the country, a group of Mexican and American scholars and government officials said last week.

Mounting public frustration in Mexico "is damaging for the process of (democratic) consolidation" said María Amparo Casar, chief of staff in the Interior Ministry, who defended the Fox administration even as she acknowledged its lack of success on important legislative fronts.

Fox, a former Coca-Cola executive whose dramatic victory in 2000 ended the 71-year domination of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, received much of the blame at Friday's conference, titled "Mexico's Political Transition: the Challenges of Democratic Governance."

George Grayson, a professor at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Va., said that while the charismatic Fox had been "a sensational vote winner" with his promise of change and renewal, he has been a bust in the methodical work of bringing together disparate groups to forge programs that are needed to revitalize Mexico's lagging energy sector. He also said Fox had failed at reforming one of the world's least-efficient tax-gathering system.

Fox's years in the private sector had apparently instilled "an emphatic disdain for politics and politicians," Grayson said. "As a result, he simply abhors the heavy lifting of building the coalitions" he will need to forge from congressional representatives drawn from the PRI, the left-leaning Democratic Revolution Party, or PRD, and Fox's own conservative National Action Party, or PAN.

No party has a majority, often making it difficult to pass legislation.

Several scholars blamed the stalemate on structural problems due to Mexico's abrupt departure from a system that saw presidents wield virtually autocratic power, ramrodding pet projects through a rubber-stamp Congress. The presidents before Fox also held the controls over a vast PRI bureaucracy that reduced dissent by doling out favors to unions, farming organizations and other groups incorporated into the party.

Ricardo Pascoe, Mexico's former ambassador to Cuba, said the newly powerful legislature, which has spawned bitter rivalries among and within the political parties, has proved too immature to be effective.

As a result, he said, the Mexican government is groping to find substitutes for the PRI's heavy-handed but effective machinery.

Pascoe said public frustration with Fox is generating a debate about a possible "restoration" of the PRI.

"What worries me is that this condition of democracy not being able to solve many problems could have the effect (of making people believe) it could be useful to go back to old attitudes," said Francisco Javier Guerrero Aguirre.

Ironically, Guerrero is an official of the PRI. He is one of the party's young reformers who reject its authoritarian past.

Armand Peschard-Sverdrup, head of the Mexico Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies – host of the conference – said in an interview: "There has to be some sort of national agreement on an agenda that is in the best interest of Mexico, and then they will have to move forward, with a lot of horse trading."

He said Mexico could not wait as long for its government to become effective as it waited for it to become democratic.

Grayson said Fox's problems could damage the PAN in July 6 elections in the Chamber of Deputies. Fox is running "the risk of being a lame duck with more than three years left in his term," which runs to the end of 2006, Grayson said. "That is going to be very disillusioning for the Mexican people, who thought that change is just around the corner."

While Pascoe warned of a possible PRI restoration, Grayson and Peschard-Sverdrup said a failed Fox administration could spur a disillusioned public to elect Mexico's first PRD president, most likely Mexico City Mayor Andrés Manuel López Obrador. But because the PRD has little presence in many parts of Mexico, Peschard-Sverdrup warned, such a turn of events could give Mexico "a president who could conceivably encounter gridlock magnified 10 times what President Fox has been facing."