Fox falls short on tall pledges

Mexican president's approval rating slips as promised progress fails to appear in first year.

Vicente Fox took office a year ago making tall promises.

After toppling the seven-decade reign of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), he pledged to create millions more jobs, grow the economy by 7 percent, make quick peace with restive Indian communities, revamp the messy tax system, and get started on cleaning up a government mired in corruption and bureaucracy - all within his first year in office.

Mexico's 6-foot-5-inch president still wears the cowboy boots that once seemed to emulate his down-home talk and take-action style. But his political stature has shrunk, at least as far as the public is concerned, and it looks like some of the swagger has gone out of his step.

"I don't know why many people are expecting that we would respond in six months to what we committed to do in six years," Mr. Fox said in an interview last week, referring to Mexico's six-year presidential term. "We have not forgotten a single one of our commitments to the people. We are attaining each and every one of them with actions that will produce results very soon."

But recent polls indicate the Mexican people aren't so patient. Fox's approval rating has dropped to around 50 percent from more than 75 percent when he took office last December. And in a survey published in El Universal on Friday, only 37 percent of respondents said they would vote for Fox again.

"I feel like he has lost his compass," says Mexico City writer Guadalupe Loaeza. "There's a part of his philosophy that has really failed."

In fairness, many of the obstacles Fox has faced in his first year haven't been of his own making. A flat economy in the US, the destination of more than 80 percent of Mexico's exports, pulled the economy here into a recession months ago. There have been 400,000 layoffs, mostly in factories along the US border.

The Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the US dragged the economy down further, and effectively squashed Fox's landmark plan for opening the US market to millions of "guest workers." Analysts say it's doubtful the US public will have much appetite for policies that make it easier for foreigners to cross the border.

Fox has also battled with an increasingly feisty legislature. The Zapatista rebels announced a return to arms after members of Fox's own party watered down the landmark Indian rights bill he had presented to the Congress.

Legislators also shelved his unpopular fiscal reform plan, which would have brought in needed revenue. Critics say the plan, that calls for 15-percent sales taxes on daily goods such as food and medicine, unfairly targets Mexico's poor.

The laggard economy, coupled with the weak tax base, means the Fox administration faces even stricter belt-tightening. In a nation where petroleum exports and the taxes on them make up about a third of government revenue, Fox's 2001 budget is now based on the assumption that crude oil prices won't dip below $17 a barrel, a dollar more than the current prices.

Few substantial gains have been made in the fight against crime, corruption, and reform of the justice system. Though Fox's government has extradited hundreds of criminals caught in Mexico and made a few high-profile arrests, several well-heeled suspects have escaped justice, prompting critics to say Fox has failed to break a tradition of impunity for the rich and powerful.

Fox counters that many were expecting widespread instability, economic crisis, and even violence when he took over from the PRI. Instead, Mexico has remained stable, and there hasn't been a wild devaluation of the peso or an implosion of the banking system as seen in 1994 soon after his predecessor, Ernesto Zedillo, took office. "Let's not forget that we had 71 years behind us of authoritarian government," said Fox. "To have the position [we have] and the advances we have [made] during these 12 months, I think is excellent."

But it's hard to placate disgruntled Mexicans with talk of how much worse things could have been. In fact, analysts say Fox's main problem is that the positive changes have been less tangible to average people than the new problems.

In key steps toward strengthening democracy, Fox has passed constitutional reform that takes power away from his executive office, and encouraged the lively debates in Congress even though it effectively blocked several of his key policy initiatives. Inflation has been stemmed, federal reserves are higher than ever before, and many investment analysts say Mexico may be set for a stronger rebound than the US when world markets eventually pick up.

But on other fronts, analysts say, it looks like Mexico's president bit off more than he could chew. "A leader should be judged on his vision and the implementation of that vision," says James Jones, the former US ambassador to Mexico. "For his vision Fox gets an A+. His implementation gets a C."

Mr. Jones and others argue that Fox needs to narrow his goals if he wants to produce some concrete policy wins.

Fox says a recent deal with other parties will help move forward key legislative objectives, and he promises that his fight against corruption is about to pick up in pace. He said pending reforms to the educational and healthcare systems will help Mexicans see how he is moving the country forward. Fox even expects his immigration deal to bear fruit early next year, saying documenting illegal workers in the US is more important now security concerns are heightened.

Some Mexicans appear ready to give Fox the benefit of the doubt. They say he has brought a new spirit of openness that gives them more confidence in the idea of democracy itself.

"All this complaining, it is just politics," says Fransisco Torres Garcia, a Mexico City taxi driver. "Fox is a good person who wants to help the people. And at least he's the first president we actually chose for ourselves."

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