March 25, 2001

Mexico's PAN faces debate on how to wield power

                  MEXICO CITY (AP) -- After 61 years as a lonely outpost of the opposition, on
                  Sunday the conservative National Action Party, or PAN, held its first national
                  convention while in power -- with doubts about whether it really is in power.

                  Old habits die hard: The party -- known for its stiff-necked positions on issues
                  like abortion, religion or women's rights -- still feels a lot like the opposition, even
                  though it now holds the presidency and a growing number of governorships.

                  President Vicente Fox, an able media operator, has spent so much time
                  distancing himself from the PAN that when he addressed the convention Sunday,
                  he almost had to remind his colleagues he was a member of their party.

                  "I fully share your values," Fox told 6,000 delegates gathered in the western city
                  of Guadalajara. "I reaffirm my membership in the PAN," Fox said. "I wear the
                  (party) emblem firmly on my sleeve."

                  But just before taking office December 1, Fox had said, "I will be governing, not
                  the PAN."

                  And just two days before the convention opened Saturday, PAN legislators voted
                  against Fox's proposal to allow Zapatista rebel leader Subcomandante Marcos to
                  speak on the floor of congress.

                  "Neither Fox nor Marcos orders congress around," said PAN legislative leader
                  Felipe Calderon, who said the rebel's appearance would violate congress'
                  newfound dignity and independence.

                  Mexico was ruled for the previous 71 years by a monolithic ruling party, the
                  PRI. Between 1929 and 2000, when Fox became the first opposition candidate
                  ever to win the presidency in Mexico, PRI presidents basically told party
                  legislators what to do, and Congress was a rubber stamp.

                  The changes -- a ruling party that doesn't hold a majority in congress, and
                  doesn't always agree with its own president -- are positive, national party leader
                  Felipe Bravo Mena told the convention.

                  "It's a healthy sign of a democratic relationship, that the PAN's support for
                  Vicente Fox does not imply a submission to the presidency," Bravo Mena said.

                  Indeed, the party's old guard -- which sternly opposes abortion and birth control,
                  takes an old-fashioned view of women's place in society, and has close ties to
                  the Roman Catholic Church -- is unlikely to change, despite the occasional
                  embarrassments they cause Fox.

                  Founded in 1939 and still dominated by many of the same prominent families that
                  started it, the party appeals to religious, middle-class Mexicans fed up with
                  crime, corruption and big government.

                  While the party's new national executive council, to be elected Sunday, is likely
                  to include Fox, it may leave out many of his key followers.

                  And while most PAN delegates expressed approval of Fox's first three months in
                  office, the distance may become more evident.

                  Fox is apparently relying on PAN votes to get his controversial tax reform bill
                  through congress, but the unpopular plan to impose sales tax on food and
                  medicine is likely to cost the party dearly in future elections.

                  But in Mexico's newly shifting political landscape, the PAN is not the only party
                  going through changes. On the vote that finally allowed the leftist rebels to
                  address congress, the former ruling party, the PRI, openly split its votes.

                  In words seldom heard in a PRI congressional caucus, congressional leader
                  Beatriz Paredes reportedly told her legislators before the Thursday vote,
                  "Gentlemen, you are free to follow your conscience in deciding your vote. It is in
                  your hands."

                  Copyright 2001 The Associated Press.