Mexico begins the 21st century with a bang. Voters last weekend rejected 71 years of one-party rule and elected Mr. Vicente Fox, a political outsider, as their president. The Mexican people have made it clear that they are ready for change. Mr. Fox, a rancher and former businessman, has vowed to do just that.
Mr. Fox shellacked his opponent, Mr. Francisco Labastida of the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), taking 42.7 percent of the ballots cast and beating him by some 2.4 million votes. Mr. Fox’s National Action Party (PAN) will command the largest number of seats in both of Mexico’s houses of Congress, but it does not have an absolute majority. That will complicate the task of governing and reforming the country.
Reform would not be easy in any case. During 71 years of one-party rule, the PRI insinuated itself into every corner of Mexican society. The political machine was a marvel of efficiency during elections. It fed on patronage and bred corruption. Fortunately, the current president, Mr. Ernesto Zedillo, worked to clean up politics and pledged that the election would be free and fair. It was, and Mr. Fox’s victory was the result. Mr. Zedillo will be pilloried by PRI loyalists, but the country owes him thanks for bringing real democracy to Mexico.
The task of continuing Mexico’s modernization process now falls on Mr. Fox. By all appearances, he is well-suited to the job. He is a former businessman, who began his run for the presidency three years ago by building a grassroots organization that made his nomination by PAN inevitable. While promising to change Mexico, he also vowed to continue the free-market and free-trade-oriented policies of his predecessor.
Promising change is one thing; delivering on that pledge is another. There may be new faces at the top, but the people implementing policy are the same bureaucrats with the same loyalties and outlook. Mexico’s opposition, like that in any state that has been dominated by one-party rule, is inexperienced. Thus, to bring about the reform that he promised, Mr. Fox will have to forge a national consensus. After being declared the winner, Mr. Fox said that he would reach out to all Mexicans to form a government. Ability, not politics, will be the deciding factor. That is not idle talk: When he was governor of the state of Guanajuato, Mr. Fox picked PRI members to serve in key positions in his government.
Mr. Fox said his top priorities will be raising the growth rate of the economy in order to create new jobs. He also pledged to boost spending on education from 5 percent of gross domestic product to 8 percent. Increased tax revenues will be used to pay for the new investments. While that could set alarm bells ringing, Mr. Fox’s business credentials are reassuring. And since Mexico’s revenue from taxes is relatively low, a mere 11 percent of GDP, there is room to increase tax efficiency without stifling economic growth.
There are other challenges. Perhaps the most important is strengthening the rule of law. That will mean ending the corruption, much of it fueled by drug money, that is eating away at the country. Mr. Fox will also try to cut the state bureaucracy. Since the 1.5 million government employees are PRI supporters, trimming the government payroll will reduce resistance to future reform and help root democratic politics.
Although Mr. Fox’s win was much larger than had been anticipated, coalition politics will be tricky. Reaching out across the political spectrum is necessary, but there is the danger that managing an unruly coalition will prove distracting and that the inevitable compromises will drain his support. Support may be fleeting. Mr. Fox was the PAN candidate, but Mr. Fox is not beholden to the party. In turn, the party might not be overly loyal to him.
The new president will find no shortage of opposition. The PRI still commands considerable support among the public and in the legislature. Conservative nationalists within the PRI could find common cause with leftwing nationalists of the Democratic Revolution Party to fight reforms that Mr. Fox has promised. A key battle will be fought over the national oil company, Pemex. During the campaign, Mr. Fox denied PRI charges that he had plans to privatize the company, the world’s fifth-largest oil company and a symbol of Mexican sovereignty. Still, parts of the company should be privatized if Mr. Fox is to make good on his pledge to modernize the economy.
It is a pledge worth keeping. Mexico has made remarkable progress in the last decade, but the work is just beginning. Mr. Fox has six months to prepare his administration before he takes office. Oddly enough, they may be the most important six months of his term.
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