In Mexico, war between Fox and Congress escalates

President Vicente Fox was supposed to be in the US this week, but Congress said no.

With much of the world's attention focused on the Mideast crisis and the fall of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, few noticed last week when a political war erupted in Mexico's capital.

It started when the opposition-controlled Senate shot down President Vicente Fox's request to travel this week to Canada and the US for meetings with business and government leaders. The 71 to 41 vote marked the first time in Mexican history that the legislature had exercised its right to block a presidential trip.

Mr. Fox fired back in a nationally televised address, telling Mexico's people that the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) he toppled in the 2000 elections was "determined" to prevent "the change you voted for."

The PRI had ruled Mexico for seven decades before Fox was elected president almost two years ago. It still holds the largest number of seats in the two Houses of Congress. Since Fox took power, the congress has consistently stalled or rewritten key legislative initiatives Fox has put forward.

Yet the latest round of fighting marks a new level of hostility between the two, analysts say, because for the first time Congress has effectively blocked Fox in his day-to-day business.

"This is much more serious than the problems he faced in the past," says political analyst Jorgé Chabat. "Now the Congress is making decisions that affect his foreign policy."

Mexico's transition from 71 years of single-party rule has been a bumpy one. The PRI has had difficulty playing the role of backbencher, and Fox has often seemed more comfortable in the role of combatant than of president. But observers say that if Fox continues to have domestic successes, such as recent high profile drug-trafficking and corruption arrests, he will be able to weather this political storm.

Legislators said they banned the trip to protest Fox's muted reaction to a recent US Supreme Court decision that limits the rights of immigrants working in the US illegally. They were also irked that Fox did not report to Congress directly on his recent meeting with President George Bush, held when the US president came for a UN summit in Monterrey.

Many analysts say the legislators have taken a big gamble in attacking Fox on foreign policy, an area that is both regarded as his strong point and which constitutionally is clearly under the president's domain.

"They didn't choose their battleground wisely," says Federico Estévez, a professor at the Autonomous Technological Institute of Mexico.

So far, most Mexicans have sided with Fox. A telephone poll by the daily newspaper, Reforma, found that 67 percent of respondents believed the legislators acted wrongly; 71 percent saw insufficient reason to block Fox's trip; and 35 percent gave the Congress low marks in general. More than half said legislators were putting party interests ahead of the national good.

PRI legislators fiercely deny the charge, saying that Fox has wrongly ignored the Congress in his day-to-day policy-making.

"He needs to spend more time on politics: creating environments and building bridges," says PRI legislator Jorge Chavez Presa. "He is trying to govern through popularity and the media."

The risk of the PRI's move, say analysts, is that Fox may one day be able to convince the public ahead of midterm legislative elections in 16 months that Mexico suffers from an obstructionist Congress, instead of from an impotent president.

Fox has had some recent successes to bolster his cause. Polls show a newfound confidence that the ailing economy will shortly begin to heal. Also, the breakup of the Arellano Felix drug cartel and the arrest last week of dozens of police allegedly on the cartel's payroll, were major victories for Fox's fight against crime, corruption, and drug trafficking.

Mexico political watchers point out that the PRI and the left-leaning Democratic Revolution Party (PRD), which voted alongside the PRI to block Fox's trip, have meanwhile suffered severe internal party strife and may be wishing to deflect attention from their own problems.

The risk for Fox in the coming months is that important upcoming legislation, including labor and power reform bills, will suffer the same fate as his earlier initiatives on Indian rights and fiscal reform, which languished before Congress and were eventually heavily rewritten.

But few expect the garrulous, tough-talking president to back down from the fight now that it has begun in earnest, with some even predicting an escalation.

"What we have seen is basically an announcement that the war has started," says Chabat. "I think Fox will win it, but let's see what happens."

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