Diane Francis on American Politics

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Gringos Beware?

Diane Francis column for Wednesday Post June 21:

Six years ago, I drank champagne into the wee hours in the election headquarters of President Vincente Fox of Mexico to celebrate his victory in the country's first-ever free elections.

I was there to cover the election but also as an official international observer to monitor the vote which ended 70 years of corrupt, socialist dictatorship perpetrated by the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI).

It was a heady victory. President Fox appeared an attractive figure with new ideas. But, as the electorate would learn, appearances were misleading.

Even so, his election marked a turning point. Mexico then, and now, has clean elections, thanks to a bullet-proof voting card system that would put Canada's scrutineers to shame. All voters must present their national identification card which has their photo, fingerprint, signature and digital information.

It also has a vibrant press. In the late 1980s, government-owned newspapers and the monopoly network were privatized and newspapers were allowed to buy newsprint from sources other than the federal government.

Now Mexico is truly a mature democracy which is why this election is such a horse race. _But press reports, out of the U.S., have got it mostly wrong. Some are speculating that the next President of Mexico may be another anti-American, anti-capitalist populist like Hugo Chavez. But this is baseless speculation, no matter who wins.

The most recent poll, by Zogby yesterday, shows a tight race between President Fox's chosen successor, Felipe Calderon with the pro-business, conservative National Action Party (PAN) and the left-wing Democratic Revolution Party (PRD) leader Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador.

PAN's Calderon has 34.5% of respondents' support; PRD's Obrador, 31.3%; PRI's leader Roberto Madrazo Pinitado (also left-wing), 27.1% and roughly 9% undecided.

Significantly, the poll fails to include the all-important absentee ballot from the massive Mexican diaspora living in the United States, an estimated 30 million legally and 10 million illegally. And that group represents a sort of middle class in exile with natural policy ties toward the pro-business PAN party of Fox and Calderon. In fact, it's notable that President Fox campaigned vigorously for this absentee vote in his election bid.

Pollster John Zogby notes another important factor in the outcome: "Voters in Mexico will go to the polls feeling better about themselves and about Mexico They want change, but the Constitution will provide that anyway because of term limits. This is still a close one, but Felipe Calderon benefits by a split between leftist candidates."

Even if Obrador wins the day, he is no Hugo Chavez, the Venezuelan who's flirted with Cuba's Castro, threatened to kick out foreign resource companies and to divert oil exports away from the U.S.

Mr. Obrador has talked about renegotiating the North American free trade deal. But so did Canadian Liberal candidate Jean Chretien back in the 1993 election and yet he did absolutely nothing to make good on that "promise".

Such gringo-bashing is favored by self-styled populists in Mexico and Canada alike, but fail to resonate with a majority of the populace in either neighboring country. This is not only because it's dismissed as rhetoric, but it's also increasingly appreciated that the NAFTA deal makes inordinate good sense for all three countries.

As for Mexico's resource industry, there's nothing to nationalize. Mexico's federal government owns the monopoly oil company, PEMEX.

And no candidate is talking about privatization either. _Conservative candidate Calderone, and Madrazo, have both proposed to let private sector oil companies participate in the oil industry in order to exploit the offshore. Some estimates are that Mexican oil production may fall from 3.35 million barrels per day to as little as 2.8 million barrels per day in two or three years, if nothing is done. About 1.7 million is consumed domestically.

Meanwhile, leftist Obrador has no interest in developing the offshore, but wants to lower gasoline prices and build new refineries and petrochemical plants to upgrade the resource. Unfortunately, PEMEX is a bloated bureaucracy with little expertise which is why it has no offshore expertise itself.

Whatever the future holds for Mexico, it will be according to the democratic wishes of a population that is newly confident and slowly prospering. Unfortunately, it's also a gradualist place and the Fox Presidency was "lost opportunities", according to a friend, Mexican editor Rosanna Fuentes-Berain.

"He accomplished a smooth transition from the PRI into democracy which not a small deed, but little else," she wrote in an e-mail yesterday. "He continued with Zedillo's and Salinas' macro-economic policy so we are fine but he had no political creativity and is an undisciplined man who is just waiting to go back to private life."