Friday, December 01, 2006

Challenges Facing Calderón

December 1, 2006
Mexico’s Besieged New Leader Faces Tough Challenges

New York Times

MEXICO CITY, Nov. 30 — It is a measure of the problems Felipe Calderón will confront as president when he is sworn in on Friday that both his conservative supporters and leftist opponents have camped out on the dais in Congress where the ceremony is to take place.

The leftists swear they will stop Mr. Calderón from taking the oath of office. The conservatives vow to ensure that he does. The standoff has become comic, as legislators from both sides have stayed up all night singing ranchero songs in between hurling fists and insults.

But the antics in Congress reflect a real gulf between people throughout this country that opened during the hotly contested national elections in July. They also reveal the paralysis that Mr. Calderón will have to overcome to deal with a range of pressing issues from job creation and poverty relief to a worsening war between drug cartels and violent social strife. . . .

Mr. Calderón won by a bare 240,000 votes, and his main opponent, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, a populist former mayor of Mexico City, has never conceded defeat, charging that the presidential election was rigged against him by a powerful alliance of businessmen and President Vicente Fox, who belongs to Mr. Calderón’s conservative National Action Party.

That Mr. López Obrador’s supporters do not recognize him as the winner is only one of Mr. Calderón’s woes. More than 2,000 people have died this year in an underworld war between drug cartels, among them scores of police officers and other law enforcement officials.

The United States, meanwhile, has hardened its position against illegal immigration, a traditional escape valve for the unemployed. And the southern state of Oaxaca continues to be crippled as leftist protesters seeking the ouster of the governor have clashed repeatedly with government paramilitary groups, leaving more than a dozen people dead and scores wounded.

What is more, Mr. López Obrador, the candidate of the leftist Democratic Revolutionary Party, has declared himself “the legitimate president” of Mexico. He has set up a shadow government and has promised to call mass protests any time Mr. Calderón makes decisions on policy that the leftist party does not agree with.

While Mr. López Obrador is clearly running the risk of becoming a professional political gadfly, he also threatens to be a permanent thorn in the side of Mr. Calderón’s presidency.

Mr. Calderón, 44, the man who must take on these challenges, possesses little charisma, even his admirers admit. But he is a stubborn and pragmatic politician.

“He lacks worldliness, he lacks vision, but it is nothing that cannot be learned, and there comes into play his tenacity,” said Germán Dehesa, a writer and columnist.

Political analysts say it would be a mistake to underestimate Mr. Calderón, who holds advanced degrees in law, economics and public administration. The son of one of the Nation Action Party’s founders, he has been active in politics since he was a youth and became the party’s youngest leader in its history in 1993.

Most recently, he served for 13 months in the Fox administration, first as the head of a development bank and then as energy minister. He served two terms in Congress and proved to be a tough negotiator when he was the head of the party’s delegation from 2000 to 2003, good at forming coalitions and bridging partisan differences. That is a skill he will need to navigate the rough waters ahead — and one Mr. Fox never seemed to possess.

“Felipe Calderón is a very young man, an intelligent man, who is clear about the relations he must have with political forces, relations that President Fox never had,” said Jaime Sánchez Susarrey, a conservative columnist.

Mr. Calderón’s campaign revealed his ability to surprise. He soundly beat Mr. Fox’s chosen candidate for the party’s nomination last year and then went on to narrowly defeat Mr. López Obrador with a well-oiled negative campaign. Only six months earlier, the leftist candidate had been predicted to win by at least 10 percentage points.

Since the nation’s highest electoral court declared him the winner in early September, Mr. Calderón has done his best to call for unity and reconciliation. He has said his top priorities will be fighting poverty and reducing crime. He has promised tax incentives to spur investment and vows to reorganize Mexico’s fractured and ineffective police forces to take on drug cartels.

“In the light of all the problems and national challenges, now is the time for unity and not futile divisions,” he said in a recent speech.

His choices for cabinet members have suggested that he may take a hard line against the sort of civil disobedience that has disrupted Mexico for the last few months. For instance, he appointed Francisco Ramírez Acuña, a former governor of Jalisco, to the all-important post of interior minister. As governor, Mr. Acuña gained notoriety for brutally quashing leftist protesters in May 2004.

Mr. Calderón has also tapped a former high-ranking official of the International Monetary Fund, Agustín Carstens, to lead his budget office, sending a signal that he intends to follow a tight monetary policy, keep inflation low and avoid overspending on public programs.

The country Mr. Calderón inherits on Friday has changed in many ways since 2000, when Mr. Fox’s election ended the 71-year monopoly on power held by the Institutional Revolutionary Party. Under Mr. Fox, Mexico has become a country with stronger democratic institutions, vociferous public debate and the end of an imperial-style presidency.

Mr. Fox managed to put an end to decades of economic mismanagement. He also made some headway with social programs, particularly a vast public housing initiative that provided low-cost mortgages to millions of households. The number of families living in desperate poverty has dropped.

But Mr. Fox’s tenure was a disappointment in many other ways.

As the election made clear, social divisions and a lack of opportunity still define the country. At least a quarter of working-age Mexicans labor in an underground economy, selling contraband in street markets or washing cars in parking lots. Some 400,000 emigrate to the United States every year in search of work.

Mr. Fox also failed to get key energy and tax reforms through a divided Congress. Oil production at the government-owned oil monopoly has begun to fall, even as the government continues to depend on oil revenues rather than tax collection, a barrier to deeper political reform.

Nor did Mr. Fox take on the public and private monopolies, like those in energy and telecommunications. Changes in labor laws never made it to Congress, and Mr. Fox was unwilling to curb public employee unions, particularly the teachers’ union.

Mr. Calderón will now have to address the leftover slate of issues. One of his greatest challenges will be to create jobs that could finally begin to reduce Mexico’s vast income gap, one of the widest in the world. But to do that he will need to form alliances in the divided Congress to push through the changes that Mr. Fox could not.

He will face opposition from some of Mexico’s business leaders, who have fought attempts to break the dominance of a few big companies. It will be hard, since many of them also backed his campaign. He must also take on powerful unions that oppose competition in the energy industry and changes to the education system.

In a speech earlier this month, Mr. Calderón said his goal was “a clean Mexico, a Mexico, in short, that has the conditions our children deserve to live in, a truly winning Mexico in a world that competes ferociously.”

“To do this, it is necessary to put aside our differences, to reach agreements and define a strategy for the country that we want, that Mexican’s dream of and that should be reality for the next generation.”

Antonio Betancourt and Elizabeth Malkin contributed reporting.

Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company

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