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Calderon’s Balancing Act

Prepared by: Stephanie Hanson
November 21, 2006

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Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, Mexico’s losing leftist presidential candidate, just can’t seem to accept defeat. Ahead of Mexican President-elect Felipe Calderon’s swearing in on December 1, Lopez Obrador proclaimed himself the “legitimate” president of Mexico at a rally of about one hundred thousand of his supporters. Whether the former Mexico City mayor's move is a “grand romantic gesture” (NYT) or a real threat to Calderon’s government remains to be seen. Analysts see it as more of a passing spectacle. They cite waning support and, more importantly, divisions within his political party (FT), the PRD. "They came from power and now want to take to the streets: we came from the streets and now want to take power," says one PRD member about the Lopez Obrador faction of his party.

Divisions within the PRD augur well for Calderon, who will need support outside his own party, the PAN, for the necessary two-thirds majority to push any major constitutional reforms through Mexico’s Congress. He has already reached out to the PRD (El Universal), writing a letter that lists a dozen issues on which the two parties agree.

The ability to bridge divides—within his country, between North and South America, and with the United States—looks imperative for Calderon’s success. The south—where Lopez Obrador draws much of his support—is more rural and poorer than the rest of the country with a mostly indigenous population. In the southern city of Oaxaca, protests by leftists (San Diego Union Tribune) seeking the governor’s resignation have ground the city to a halt for nearly six months. Much of the country’s police are occupied with Oaxaca and the threat of protests by Lopez Obrador’s supporters, leaving a seriously reduced force to address the country’s escalating drug violence, a problem that transcends the north-south divide.

Outside Mexico, Calderon will face the challenge of navigating a foreign policy that balances North and South America. Calderon first visited eight Latin American countries before heading to Washington in November, and Mexican officials say he plans to position Mexico as a mediator (Miami Herald) between the U.S.and left-leaning governments in South America.

In his meeting with President Bush, Calderon downplayed the immigration issue after initially calling the U.S. plan to build a 700-mile fence on the border “deplorable.” Immigration “is not the only issue in our bilateral relationship,” he said. “We want to foster our trade relationship, our economic relationship even more.” His constituency agrees: A new report on public opinion and foreign policy in Mexico prepared by the Mexican research center CIDE says Mexicans believe the government’s top three foreign policy objectives (PDF) should be promoting exports, protecting Mexican interests abroad, and combating drug trafficking. A new Council Special Report on Mexico recommends that the United States help Mexico create jobs to stem immigration, stop insisting it accept subsidized agricultural exports, and help train its police and security forces. And a 2005 CFR Task Force report on North America urged improved joint efforts to spur more uniform economic development in Mexico, calling it a crucial issue for the security of the continent.

If Calderon’s apparent pragmatism can overcome domestic political unrest and sensitive foreign policy issues, The Economist argues that he has an “extraordinary opportunity” to bring democratic progress and rapid economic growth to Mexico. But even then he must fight the many monopoly powers—Telmex, the telecoms company; Pemex, the state oil company; and the teachers’ union—still in place. “It is these bastions of unaccountable power, rather than Mr. Lopez Obrador’s antics, that are the real threat,” the magazine writes.

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