The Mexican Muddle

MEXICO CITY – This month, Mexico’s Felipe Calderón celebrates his second anniversary as president. Calderón took office in December 2006 under adverse circumstances. Elected with 35% of the vote, he lacked a majority in Congress, and the opposition refused to acknowledge his victory. He has also had to govern in a persistently difficult environment: a lame-duck president next door in the United States, a severe economic downturn, and the legacy of corruption, negligence, and complicity handed down by his predecessors since 1968, when Mexico’s old one-party political system began to crumble.

Most immediately, Calderón had to address his immediate predecessor’s failure to implement any of the major reforms that Mexico needed. Vicente Fox took office in 2000 with a broad mandate, but, like Calderón, without a majority in Congress. He proved unable to forge lasting legislative coalitions, leading Calderón to decide that his first break with the past should consist in building alliances to enact reform. Soon, however, this became an end in itself, and Calderón proved adept at constructing short-lived coalitions for largely inconsequential reforms. This watered-down gradualism has become his trademark.

Given this, it is no surprise that the list of question marks attached to Calderón’s administration is longer than that of his achievements. His poll numbers reflect this ambivalence. He remains personally popular and well regarded, but the public is increasingly dissatisfied and disappointed with his government’s actual performance.

Among his few successes are state-employee pension fund reforms, which will save the system from bankruptcy. Another lies in having weakened and neutralized the left-wing opposition, and being able to govern without major confrontations in the streets or Congress. Other changes – a counter-productive electoral reform, a minor revenue-enhancing tax reform, and hypothetical oil-sector reform – all suffer from Calderón’s penchant for minimalism: enacting legislation seems more important to him than the content.