No honeymoon for Mexico's new leader
Felipe Calderón becomes Mexico's new president Friday. He faces fierce political opposition.
MEXICO CITY — Tensions remain high in the restive southern state of Oaxaca. Defeated leftist candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador recently declared himself the "legitimate" president. And rival legislators came to blows this week on the floor of Congress.
There will be no honeymoon for Mexico's conservative president-elect Felipe Calderón, who takes office Friday after winning the disputed July 2 election by less than 1 percentage point – a vote that exposed Mexico's deep political and economic divisions.
The 44-year-old lawyer and former energy minister, a loyal member of outgoing president Vicente Fox's conservative National Action Party (PAN), faces a fierce opposition that will immediately test his political mettle. Despite predictions that Mr. Calderón would adopt a conciliatory approach, given the deep political rifts, early indications are that he intends to set a firm tone by confronting leftist opponents.
"Calderón must immediately show that he is in charge," says Armand Peschard-Sverdrup, director of the Mexico Project at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies. "One of the mistakes of the Fox government was giving in and avoiding confrontation."
Calderón's first test: his own swearing-in ceremony. On Tuesday, a scuffle erupted in Congress between members of the left-leaning Democratic Revolution Party (PRD) and PAN legislators. PRD members, claiming the election was fraudulent, have seized part of the stage where Calderón is supposed to take the oath of office. With the stand-off continuing only hours before Friday's ceremony, which former President George H. W. Bush is expected to attend, it remained unclear where the ceremony would take place.
Calderón's chief political rival will be Mr. López Obrador, the former Mexico City mayor, known as AMLO, who lost the presidential election and has since created a "parallel" government to challenge Calderón. López Obrador's popularity has dropped sharply since the election. Many of his moderate supporters have left his side, considering the move to create a "parallel" government over the top.
Still, López Obrador can mobilize tens of thousands of supporters, and his advisers say that negotiating with Calderón would be futile. "There's no room for dialogue," says José Agustín Ortiz, one of López Obrador's closest advisers. "He has surrounded himself with orthodox conservatives who will not budge from the same neoliberal policies that keep most Mexicans poor."
Francisco Javier Aparicio, a political scientist at the Center for Economics, Research, and Education in Mexico City, says, "Calderón cannot underestimate López Obrador, who will likely dog the president throughout his six years in office." Yet Mr. Aparicio noted that Calderón never became unhinged in the five months since the election, with López Obrador continuously tagging him as Mexico's "spurious" president.
"In the face of opposition, Calderón seems to keep a cool head," says Aparicio.
Meanwhile, another immediate challenge for Calderón will be restoring order in Oaxaca. For nearly seven months, protesters demanding the resignation of the state governor, Ulises Ruiz, have seized the capital of the heavily indigenous state. Critics charge Ruiz with electoral fraud, neglecting the social needs of Mexico's second-poorest state, and forming armed groups to attack protesters.
The conflict has sparked several violent clashes between protesters and police and has left an estimated 15 people dead. Last weekend, protesters torched buildings and vehicles, leading to more than 150 arrests.
Feelings are mixed about Calderón's decision to pick Francisco Ramírez Acuña as interior secretary, a powerful position that oversees internal security. Human rights groups, including New York-based Human Rights Watch, claim that when Ramírez Acuña was governor of the western state of Jalisco he allowed police to physically abuse protesters at a 2004 antiglobalization protest.
Not so, says Calderón, who stresses that Ramírez Acuña reduced crime in Jalisco. Analysts say Calderón is aware of Ramírez's hard-hitting reputation and hopes that it will add to the tough-guy image the president-elect is building, and appeal to those frustrated with lawlessness in Mexico.
Calderón also hopes, they say, that partners like Ramírez Acuña may help him tackle Mexico's alarming level of violence related to drug trafficking. Recent reports by local human rights groups and El Universal, a Mexico City newspaper, show that more than 2,000 people have died in the drug war this year. "We're seeing signs that Calderón wants to build a mano dura, or strong-arm image, something Fox never had," says Aparicio.
Yet, despite the ruckus in Congress and unrest in Oaxaca, the political climate may eventually settle down. Some analysts expect that the PRD may ultimately negotiate with Calderón, given that the party is the second-largest force in Congress for the first time ever. "Calderón will try to build consensus with the PRI, and those moderates on the left will see that and want to create alliances as well," says Peschard-Sverdrup.