Fox is popular, but his party may not benefit

Mexican president's PAN party is in a dead heat with the opposing PRI as July polls loom.

Polls show President Vicente Fox is more popular than ever with the Mexican people. But that doesn't seem to be helping his party in the run-up to next month's midterm elections.

President Fox's National Action Party (PAN) is just neck and neck with the opposition he helped to defeat in the 2000 elections, despite the fact that he enjoys a 64 percent approval rating.

That statistic highlights a yawning gap between what analysts describe as Fox's personal popularity and his ability to get things done politically. Few, if any, of his major legislative initiatives have made it out of Congress.

"On the one hand, many people think he is a likable president, that he is a good person," says Soledad Loaeza, a political analyst at the College of Mexico. "But they don't think he is a good president. And this is a very important issue."

The Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, which Fox knocked out of power after 71 years in office, is expected to win 38 percent of the vote in the crucial July 6 congressional elections, the same percentage as Fox's PAN party, according to polls.

Some predict that the PRI, which has the most seats in the two houses of Congress, will edge forward in the Senate, and hold its ground in the House of Representatives. Others think smaller movements, like the Green Party or the Worker's Party, will advance at the cost of larger parties, showing Mexicans' general frustration with the political establishment.

In another election setback, Fox was pressured Monday to suspend a series of TV and radio ads touting his government's achievements after the federal elections watchdog agency suggested they would give his party an unfair campaign advantage.

Most analysts here also agree that Fox isn't the only problem. Seven decades of single party rule have left this country's major political players with little skill in multiparty dealings.

Fox himself appears to be hoping he'll win the popularity battle - or at least be remembered as the president who brought Mexico a new era of multiparty democracy. "We are not working for applause in the short term," he said at a recent public event. "In this government we work to construct a better future for all Mexicans."

When the 6 ft., 6 in. president rode into office in December 2000, he did so on a platform of tall promises, which he has largely failed to deliver. The opposition-controlled Congress has blocked many of his most urgent reform plans - revamping the tax system and making peace with Mexico's Zapatista rebels, to name a couple - often with the help of senior legislators from Fox's own PAN. Today, Fox appears to be a president without the backing of a party.

Instead of stepping up his efforts to play politics and make deals, Fox has publicly blamed the Congress for stopping progress. "When he says the Congress doesn't let me govern, the people realize he has no power," says Ms. Loaeza. "He is admitting himself he cannot govern."

Many political observers here also lament the perception that Fox won the battle for president but appears to be losing the presidency. He is seen as bowing to public opinion at the cost of his own policy initiatives, or blaming others for his failures.

This approach may have caused Fox to misstep on a key issue for his presidency: an immigration accord with the US. In the lead up to the war in Iraq, he repeatedly played to public opinion, stressing his intent to vote against a war resolution in the UN Security Council. That won him kudos at home, but damaged his once warm relations with President George Bush.

Fox continues to complain that the US is stymieing his efforts: to make it safer for Mexicans to work in the US, for example, or sort out water shortages on the border.

And he recently launched a quixotic battle with Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva to fight the billions of dollars in subsidies that the US government gives annually to its farmers. No one predicts Washington will end farm subsidies soon, and many fear the Mexican president, whom Bush once called "amigo," will only further alienate his allies in Washington.

Some experts say Fox may be playing the best poker he can with the bad hand dealt him. He's hardly going to bring about the economic miracle he promised amid a slump in world markets, and has little chance of getting the US to open its border since the 9-11 terrorist attacks.

But playing the anti-gringo card has helped him at home. "He found his ratings went up in messy times when he stood up to Washington," says Federico Estévez, a professor of international relations at the Autonomous Technological Institute of Mexico. "He is not US-bashing, but he is out there pressing his case, and so far it has worked, at least for domestic public opinion."

Poll-watchers say Mexicans will probably have to be satisfied with long-term hopes for improvement, since the July midterms don't look as if they're going to alter the deadlock in Congress.

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