Is This The Man To Topple Mexico's Ruling Party?

In early March, Mexico's National Action Party (PAN) chose a respected 33-year-old lawyer and former congressman, Felipe Calderon Hinojosa, as its president. The PAN's choice of a young, energetic leader can only mean one thing: After more than a year of economic woes, Mexico's political arena is likely to heat up.

During its 50-year history, the pro-business PAN has been dogged by a reputation for collaborating with the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). But now, Mexico's leading opposition party sees a chance to break the PRI's more than six-decades-old grip on power. After taking over the PAN, Calderon showed his intention to play hardball, saying he would continue to boycott the political-reform talks with the PRI until the ruling party stops its electoral shenanigans. "We wanted to give a very clear signal against the double-talk of the government," he says.

Calderon, who despite his youth is a longtime senior PAN official, inherits a political base that has grown fast during the past two years of turmoil. The party controls all of the major cities except the capital and 4 of the 32 statehouses. PAN elected officials already govern some 30% of Mexicans at the state or local levels. Now, Calderon will try to orchestrate the leap to national power by gaining a congressional majority in August, 1997. Then he'll run the party's presidential campaign in 2000, though he's unlikely to be the candidate. "There's a great probability we'll win the presidential vote," Calderon confidently predicts.

"VERY SERIOUS BLOW." In the meantime, Calderon's aggressive approach is likely to add to the problems of President Ernesto Zedillo Ponce de Leon. The shaky Zedillo has already made economic concessions to nationalists that would have been unthinkable to his predecessor, Carlos Salinas de Gortari. Just recently he moved to restrict foreign ownership of privatized petrochemical plants. He also promised that only Mexican firms will be allowed to manage the private pension funds the government wants to launch.

Calderon couldn't ask for a better moment to begin his quest. The government predicts a 3% first-quarter slide in the economy after last year's 6.9% drop. That weakness and a stream of revelations about corruption in the Salinas administration have Mexicans clamoring for change. Labor, farmers, and Big Business are no longer the reliable PRI backers they once were. "Without a doubt, the economic crisis was a very serious blow" to the party's credibility, admits PRI President Santiago Onate Laborde.

DEATH THREATS. With the PRI floundering, Calderon plans to broaden the PAN's appeal by deemphasizing its Catholic and conservative roots, focusing instead on democratic government and social justice. Calderon's youth alone may be useful in attracting new members in a country where the average age is just 19.

Considered one of the PAN's more liberal figures, Calderon doesn't stray from the party's free-market stance. He wants to open up the financial industry to foreign competition to cut borrowing costs. He is in favor of the North American Free Trade Agreement but faults Zedillo and Salinas for not enforcing its terms as toughly as the U.S. "We believe in sticking with a free-market economy, but with rules that guarantee social justice and tolerance," he says.

Although quite sanguine, Calderon knows the PRI remains a formidable adversary. He says that hotel and restaurant owners in Cancun who support the PAN received death threats. He also reports that Big Business is quietly contributing money but is still reluctant to give public support. Competing against the PRI's well-oiled, superfinanced electoral machinery will still be difficult. But it is no longer impossible.

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