Confidence runs high in Mexico

Sunday, the country sidestepped the 'fear vote' by electing the first non- PRI president in 71 years.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

"New Mexico" - suddenly that means something other than one of the 50 United States.

A Mexico in which many people professed a fear of life without the party that ruled for seven decades is now a nation enthusiastically embracing a profound political change.

The "fear vote" - that many Mexicans only last week said would stall any temptation to defeat the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) in Sunday's election - never materialized. Instead, Mexicans buoyed by a transparent and meticulously fair electoral process voted in surprisingly decisive numbers for a fresh start.

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This new Mexico is youthful, urban, confident that things can be better, and more demanding of its leaders. This Mexico is placing its hope for a prosperous, less corrupt, and safer nation in Vicente Fox, the first opposition candidate ever to win the presidency.

Confidence in the merits of a new direction was so strong that voters followed through with the equally unthinkable: The PRI also lost for the first time its majority in the Senate. Mr. Fox's National Action Party (PAN) and its partner Green party are expected to have a plurality in the two-house Congress once all votes are counted.

Foreign investors appear to have faith that Mexico will be on solid financial footing when Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo turns the reins over to Fox in December: Markets rose 6 percent Monday, and the peso rose 3 percent against the dollar.

The advent of a Mexico governed by the populist, unorthodox Fox could mean some shaking up of the US-Mexico relationship, analysts say. After meeting with Mr. Zedillo in the Los Pinos presidential palace Monday evening, Fox sounded all business, laying out how his government program would focus on three priorities: ratcheting up growth to a 7 percent annual rate, an educational revolution, and judicial reform.

But for now, the magnitude of the change Sunday's vote portends for Mexico both stunned and cheered Mexicans. "This is like the end of our Berlin Wall, this [vote] is the expression of a new Mexico," said Joaquin Lpez-Doriga, news anchor for the Televisa television network. His words were all the more meaningful since for decades Televisa was one of the blocks in the PRI's wall of control around Mexico, a private company that worked hand in hand with the PRI government to help guarantee its rule.

Since 1929, generations of Mexicans have grown up with the PRI as a fixture of everyday life. The PRI gave out jobs, provided subsidies, and created and sold monopolies to its wealthy supporters. It was also tradition-bound, corrupt, told people how to vote, and left a legacy that includes 45 percent of Mexicans still living in poverty.

After the vote, Mexico City's famed Angel of Independence monument was the site of spontaneous celebrations for Fox. "Yes, we did it!" chanted a crowd of 20,000 revelers with a note of disbelief.

That feeling of wonderment is still palpable around the country. "I just want to take this all in," says retiree Ramiro Ramrez, looking over the dozens of headlines at a central Mexico City newsstand proclaiming Fox's victory with mile-high letters and exclamation marks. "I was eight years old when the PRI came to power [in 1929], and I never thought I'd survive to see this happen," he says, his eyes shining. "This is like a second independence day."

Fox - a former Coca-Cola executive and ex-governor of the center-west state of Guanajuato - introduced a new style of campaign to Mexico with populist appeal and sharp, throw-the-bums-out rhetoric. And he generally attracted the growing segments of the Mexican voting population that the tradition-encrusted PRI failed to win over.

Exit polls showed Fox won overwhelmingly in the cities and clinched 49 percent of the elusive youth vote (compared with 35 percent for Labastida). "I voted for Labastida because many people around me did, but I think Fox will be really good for Mexico and especially for young people," says Manuel Martnez, a young upholstery-shop worker from a Mexico City suburb. "He talks about the jobs and better living conditions that young Mexicans deserve."

Even before the election, the PRI recognized it had a problem with the youth vote. Approximately 64 percent of Mexico's population is under 30. And about 18 percent of the electorate was eligible to vote for the first time "We [in the PRI] haven't developed a program attractive to the young, so our task now will be to demonstrate that we are [their] party," says Javier Trevio Cant, a campaign advisor to Labastida.

One area where Fox fared less well was among women voters. Although women make up 53 percent of registered voters, surveys showed men voted in greater numbers than women - and more overwhelmingly for Fox than did women. Despite worries over post-electoral turbulence, the elections went so smoothly and with so few complaints that many of the 860 approved foreign observers declared the elections a success, then packed up and left early.

"We look upon these elections as a turning point of a most powerful significance for all who love freedom and democracy," said Jimmy Carter, who headed the Carter Center's observer delegation. Calling the election "almost perfect" and "a rare event" in the Latin American and African countries whose elections he has monitored, the former US president said he wished the US had laws regulating campaign-finance and media-access equality like Mexico's. And he credited President Zedillo with ushering in this more democratic Mexico.

No one sees big trouble for US-Mexico relations in a Fox presidency - but that doesn't mean it will be politics as usual for the complex relationship either, analysts say. The status quo "will be challenged by Fox because he knows [relations] could be better," says Robert Pastor, a Latin America expert at Emory University in Atlanta who was part of the Carter Center observer team. Fox has a "passionate interest" in the issue of North American integration, Mr. Pastor says, "and a lot of good ideas."

During the presidential campaign Fox proposed making the 2,000-mile-long US-Mexico divide an "open border" with free movement of people within a decade. Whether or not he really thinks that's possible, the proposal is emblematic of how President Fox can be expected to force open new areas of discussion.

Besides, as Fox showed a once doubtful Mexico with his own success, just proposing something and insisting it can happen is already half the battle.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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