The Dallas Morning News
Saturday, September 11, 2004

Mexican politics can only be called weird

Break from old patterns brings power struggles to center stage

By LAURENCE ILIFFand BRENDAN M. CASE / The Dallas Morning News

MEXICO CITY The father of Mexico's modern democracy, President Vicente Fox, was recently the target of street protests and partisan jeers at his State of the Union address.

The man with the best shot to succeed him, Mexico City Mayor Andrés Manuel López Obrador, may have to sit out the 2006 election if political rivals in Congress and the federal government decide to legally disqualify him over a land dispute.

And in a few cases, politicians' wives now aim to succeed their husbands keeping top jobs all in the family, since mayors, governors, presidents and lawmakers may not be re-elected. That's unfamiliar ground for Mexico, and a public outcry forced Mr. Fox's wife, Marta Sahagún de Fox, to stifle her own ambitions.

Call it weird politics, but don't call it boring. After four years of eye-glazing legislative gridlock and speeches that act like sleeping pills, Mexico's traditionally staid politicians are finally breaking new ground.

For a nation long accustomed to behind-the-scenes power struggles, it's an unprecedented political spectacle not unlike the intensifying U.S. presidential race.

"It upsets a lot of old patterns, but I don't think it's destabilizing," said pollster Dan Lund, head of Mund Americas. "I think people are enjoying it."

For others here, it's downright scary. The highly popular Mr. López Obrador's possible banishment from the race, they say, could eventually lead to mass protests and a political crisis.

"It's clear that what is being played out here is the future of the country," said Luis Miguel Rionda, a political scientist at the University of Guanajuato in Mr. Fox's home state.

Mexico's old one-party political system, which lasted for seven decades until Mr. Fox's win in 2000, had a habit of melting down during the last two years of the six-year presidential term.

There was a student massacre in the 1960s, a crushing peso devaluation in the 1970s, a possibly stolen presidential election in the 1980s, and the assassination of the front-running candidate in the 1990s.

3 parties are key

In today's multiparty democracy, however, power resides mainly in three parties: Mr. Fox's National Action Party, or PAN; the previously all-powerful Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI; and the left-wing Party of the Democratic Revolution, or PRD.

All three parties have a legitimate shot at winning the presidency in 2006. And unlike the old system's all-powerful presidents, Mr. Fox can exert little control over the process.

"This is a different kind of moment," said Mr. Rionda. "I don't remember in past administrations, in the fourth year of power, the president being so weak."

Some examples of political fomentation in recent months:

In 2003, Mr. Fox said politicians' efforts to succeed him in 2006 were to be expected. But when his energy minister all but declared his candidacy in May, Mr. Fox forced him out with a public tongue-lashing. A few weeks later, Mr. Fox's private secretary who functioned as a chief of staff abruptly quit and leaked a 19-page letter blasting the president. The adviser's chief beef: Mr. Fox's alleged efforts to help the first lady succeed him.

"Fox's attitude toward his wife generated a lot of unease," said José Antonio Aguilar, a political scientist with the Center for Economic Research and Teaching, adding that there was an "impression that Fox was smoothing the way for his wife."

Ms. Sahagún eventually took her hat out of the ring. But she apparently inspired other political wives. State governors' wives in Tlaxcala, Nayarit and Quintana Roo have expressed political aspirations. María del Carmen Ramírez, first lady of Tlaxcala, is in a bitter fight with her own party, the PRD, to be its standard-bearer. She has taken her case to the courts, while PRD factions have held street fights to settle their differences.

After losing the presidency in 2000, the PRI has risen from the ashes at a surprising clip. It is the dominant party in Congress and has been gaining ground at the state and local levels. In Oaxaca, the party held onto the governorship, boosting outgoing Gov. José Murat, who analysts say faked an attempt on his own life earlier this year. Tijuana's new PRI mayor is Jorge Hank Rhon, the son of a legendary party official who amassed a fortune in the party's heyday. PRI leader Roberto Madrazo, an old-time political operator, is polling second in presidential preferences.

The biggest corruption scandals of the year have not come from dogged prosecutors digging up the PRI's shady past. Rather, they've sprung from secretly filmed videotapes that surfaced within the relatively young PRD and the Green Party, showing top officials stuffing briefcases with stacks of bills or negotiating payoffs in exchange for political favors.

Meanwhile, Mr. López Obrador, the Mexico City mayor, might not even be allowed to run for president in 2006. Federal authorities say he violated a judicial order in a complicated land dispute, a crime. As early as this fall, Mr. López Obrador's rivals in Congress will decide whether he should lose his immunity from prosecution and stand trial. The sentence could include disqualification from running for public office.

Legislative work in Congress has moved to the back burner. Few analysts expect lawmakers to adopt significant legislation this fall. The work schedule was so light earlier this year that one Green Party legislator, Jorge Kahwagi, found time to appear on the 24-hour reality show Big Brother. The lack of action on everything from energy to labor law to taxes has many economists bemoaning Mexico's sagging competitiveness. Many manufacturing jobs have left the country.

"The story has not changed for the last four years," said Isaac Katz, an economics professor at the Autonomous Technological Institute of Mexico. "It has not changed for the last six years, or eight years, in fact."

Growing pains

It's too soon to tell where Mexico's political scramble will lead. The risk of a political crisis is apparent, particularly if Mr. López Obrador is barred from seeking the presidency.

On the other hand, the nation's increasingly open political scene, where disputes are settled in public instead of in smoke-filled rooms, might just be a sign of Mexico's developing democracy. Call it democracy's passage from infancy to childhood.

Said Mr. Aguilar, the political scientist, "We're in uncharted territory."