Populist Fox appeals to Mexican
desire for change and stability


Mexico City

Mexico's long-ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) faces the nearly unthinkable prospect July 2 of losing the presidency for the first time in more than 70 years to Vicente Fox, a tough-talking rancher and former governor of Guanajuato state.

As the presidential candidate of the Alliance for Change, a two-party coalition made up of Fox's conservative National Action Party (PAN) and the environmentalist Mexican Green Party (PVEM), Fox is surging ahead in the polls while making inroads in the traditional support base of his main rivals. In the aftermath of Fox's stellar performance during the April presidential candidates' debate, one poll showed him ahead of PRI candidate Francisco Labastida by 6 points.

Without oversimplifying the Fox phenomenon, the opposition candidate's success can be attributed to his ability to master, mix and manipulate the five big C's of Mexican political culture: Conservatism, Catholicism, Caudillismo, Charisma and Change. Although such a stew from seemingly incompatible ingredients would be virtually anathema to the US diet, as would be a Conservative-Green party (Jack Kemp, the Pope, Ricky Martin and Ralph Nader on the same fundraising circuit?), prevailing cultural and economic realities in Mexico dictate that any pretender to the republican crown has to appeal to the idiosyncrasies of the average Mexican voter.

Fox, a towering figure who projects the image of a no-nonsense father who'd whip the neighborhood bully to a pulp or belt the wayward son into submission, appears to be the choice for many Mexicans who seek change but are reluctant to abandon failing yet familiar institutions for the chaos of the unknown. After all, not far in the background of the contemporary political landscape is the memory of the 1910-20 revolution that left a million dead Mexicans in the wake of pitched battles between regional strongmen.

A self-proclaimed anti-abortionist who has claimed the image of the sacred, the Catholic Virgin of Guadalupe, while simultaneously flirting with the votes of anti-Rome evangelical sects, Fox comes across as the Good Shepherd who will protect and guide the family flock in a time of danger and transition. It's no accident that his daughter accompanies him on stage during campaign stops.

But Fox's discourse is far from the anti-government, free-market ramblings of the US Christian Right. Two intellectuals long associated with the left, Jorge Castaneda and Adolfo Aguilar Zinser, serve as key advisers to the politician. True to the traditions of Mexican populism, Fox proposes agricultural subsidies to producers who are watching their way of life go under in a flood of NAFTA imports. His rhetoric rings with denunciations of inequality, lambasting the poverty that afflicts 40 million Mexicans. "It's indispensable to spread around income, distribute it and guarantee equal opportunities for all Mexicans," said Fox in a recent speech. "Were proposing that the economy grow 7 percent (annually). We have charted this goal because it is the absolute minimum needed in order to regenerate the 1,300,000 jobs that are needed every year for youths that are arriving at the age of employment."

As for other major domestic concerns, Fox proposes to launch an education revolution to rescue Mexico's sinking educational system and increase government spending on schooling from 5 percent to 9 percent of the Gross Domestic Product. Fox declares that he will withdraw the Mexican Army from Chiapas in 15 minutes and respect the San Andres accords negotiated between the government and Zapatista insurgents more than four years ago. Almost in the same breath, however, he promises to crack down on rebel groups in the state of Guerrero. And in reference to the still-boiling battle over Mexico's National Autonomous University (UNAM), Fox criticized the government arrests of student strikers last February, but also added elsewhere that the law had to be applied against those protesters who broke laws during their 10-month occupation of the giant university campus.

Some of Fox's ideas dangle outside the acceptable ideological parameters sanctioned by much of the Washington power elite. He suggests opening the border for the free movement of Mexican immigrant workers, and begs to differ on the trade blockade against Cuba. Still, Fox is seen as far from an anti-imperialist menace. His PAN party is all for free trade. And despite Fox's criticisms of the maquiladora export economy as a model for development, maquiladoras, some of which were financially supported by state funds, flourished in Guanajuato during his tenure as governor during the late 1990s. In spite of Fox's denials, strong suspicions exist that he might try to privatize Mexico's oil resources if elected president, a measure that would be greeted with glee on Wall Street. But above all, Fox promises an end to crime in the streets and suites and money back in the pockets of Mexicans who are still waiting to feel the miracle of the much-touted economic recovery.

In Fox, one can detect the fascist, social reformer, Mexican nationalist, Caudillo strongman, peacemaker, money broker, and Christian Democrat, all rolled up in one neat package. Foxmania, as his movement is being dubbed by some Mexican pundits, has generated its own myths to attract the masses. "We see him as making a good president. In the first place, he's been poor just like us," said Acapulco housewife Paula Enriquez after hearing Fox speak one night. "He's moved ahead with work and sacrifice. We see him as a fair president for Mexico."

Surely Fox's former position as president of Coca-Cola in Mexico gave him the needed experience in public relations management to launch his presidential bid. So far, the businessman-turned politician has pursued a strategy that is just a tad short of brilliant. Like any successful politician, he has the ability to switch linguistic registers to suit the audience. For poor rural crowds, he dons a cowboy hat and boots and calls PRI candidate Labastida "shorty" or some choice vulgar name. For urban middle class audiences, he assumes an urbane, sophisticated style. A combination of grassroots organization and innovative media publicity has allowed Fox to give the PRI a run for its money. Importantly, he had a jump start on other candidates not only from outside his party but from within it as well. Launching a media campaign in 1998, a full year before his potential rivals, Fox all but sowed up the PAN candidacy even before being formally nominated. Shrewdly, his Friends of Fox campaign organization was created as a parallel group to the PAN leadership.

Although Fox's proposals can be rightly considered vague, he has maintained one message throughout the lengthy campaign: Vote the PRI Out of Power. Lately, the Fox team has been distributing 10-minute videos for home viewing that ask Mexicans if they want another six years of political murders, corruption and guerrilla uprisings. Taking a cue from the home products companies Avon and Amway, friends of Fox are distributing videos from house-to-house. And in a historic milestone, no opposition presidential candidate in Mexican history has received the amount of media coverage as Vicente Fox. Part of the reason, as this reporter learned when he was ejected from a Fox press conference, is the candidate's agreement to allow Televisa, one of the big two television networks, exclusive coverage of the candidate at certain functions.

Fox's rising star has not come cheap. The lion's share of his campaign expenditures hails from public funding given to the PAN-PVEM coalition for the 2000 federal presidential and congressional election, which reaches about $100 million US dollars. Under Mexican election law, parties are allowed to raise private moneys equivalent to about 50 percent of the public allocation, thus allowing the Fox camp to legally spend $150 million dollars in order to see their man elected. One rumored source of private money comes from conservative businessmen who want order restored to Mexico. Yet another large undetermined figure is flowing in from what could be called Fox Fashions Inc., a makeshift garment and souvenir line that peddles trinkets of all sorts at campaign events. Fox jeans, t-shirts, caps, and assorted memorabilia are all for sale to raise money for the cause. On a daily basis, the Fox campaign is hard at work in making Mexico's estimated $500-million dollar federal election what the Washington Office on Latin America tags as the most expensive one in Latin America.

All things considered, Fox doesn't need any help from his political enemies. But aiding him in his catapult to power are the teetering campaigns of his principal rivals. Even though six men are running for president, only three ever had any chance of winning -- Fox, Labastida and Cuahtemoc Cardenas. In normal times, the PRI's Labastida would have been in a shoo-in. But decades of economic mismanagement, corruption and scandal have clearly taken their toll. Realizing it was in trouble, the party unveiled the New PRI last year, promising to be more democratic and closer to the voter. But Labastida, the former governor of narco-ridden Sinaloa state and later Interior Minister under President Zedillo, has had serious trouble convincing people what his New PRI is all about.

Indeed, as the days draw closer to the election, signs of the old PRI are obvious on all fronts. In order to salvage a sinking ship, Labastida is filling the galleys with old-time political stalwarts and operatives, some of whom are known to be not above tinkering with elections. At the very moment Labastida is stumbling, Fox is stealing the thunder from longtime opposition figurehead Cuahtemoc Cardenas, the candidate for the center-left Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) and Alliance for Mexico. The reasons for Cardenas' apparent decline are complex, but special mention must be made here of the failure of the PRD to project a coherent program while maintaining party discipline. Seemingly never-ending internal power struggles have been sapping the PRD, especially since early 1999, lending credence to the anti-Cardenas line that his party is the party of conflict and not a serious alternative for national rule. And to its own misfortune, the Cardenas campaign is suffering from a late start while being upstaged by Vicente Fox as the man who will take on and defeat the PRI.

Vicente Fox's test will come on July 2. All indications are that he believes he has already won. In 1994, the PAN's candidate, Diego Fernandez de Cevallos, mysteriously faded away in the latter stages of the race after gaining ground on a lackluster Ernesto Zedillo. In his book A Los Pinos, which translates modestly To The White House, Fox made note of that episode. "But the history of Diego won't be repeated," wrote the current presidential candidate of the Alliance for Change. "I'm Going for the Presidency of the Republic." If Vicente Fox is declared the loser in what he considers a dirty election, the big man from Guanajuato is unlikely to take the decision lying down.

Kent Paterson is a free-lance radio and print journalist in Albuquerque, N.M.

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