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Mexico...s Besieged New Leaders Face Tough Challenges Following Election

By James C. McKinley Jr.


It is a measure of the problems Felipe Calderon will confront as president when he is sworn in on Friday that both his conservative supporters and leftist opponents have camped out on the dais in Congress where the ceremony is to take place.

The leftists swear they will stop Calderon from taking the oath of office. The conservatives vow to ensure that he does. The standoff has become comic, as legislators from both sides have stayed up all night singing ranchero songs in between hurling fists and insults.

But the antics in Congress reflect a real gulf between people throughout this country that opened during the hotly contested national elections in July. They also reveal the paralysis that Calderon will have to overcome to deal with a range of pressing issues from job creation and poverty relief to a worsening war between drug cartels and violent social strife.

Calderon won by a bare 240,000 votes, and his main opponent, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, a populist former mayor of Mexico City, has never conceded defeat, charging that the presidential election was rigged against him by a powerful alliance of businessmen and President Vicente Fox, who belongs to Calderon’s conservative National Action Party.

That Lopez Obrador’s supporters do not recognize him as president is only one of Calderon’s woes. More than 2,000 people have died this year in an underworld war between drug cartels, among them scores of police officers and other law enforcement officials.

The United States, meanwhile, has hardened its position against illegal immigration, a traditional escape valve for the unemployed. And the southern state of Oaxaca continues to be crippled as leftist protesters seeking the ouster of the governor have clashed repeatedly with government paramilitary groups, leaving more than a dozen people dead and scores wounded.

What is more, Lopez Obrador, the candidate of the leftist Democratic Revolutionary Party, has declared himself “the legitimate president” of Mexico. He has set up a shadow government and has promised to call mass protests any time Calderon makes decisions on policy that the leftist party does not agree with.

While Lopez Obrador is clearly running the risk of becoming a professional political gadfly, he also threatens to be a permanent thorn in the side of Calderon’s presidency.

Calderon, the man who must take on these challenges, even his admirers admit, possesses little charisma. But he is a stubborn and pragmatic politician, even though he has not worked in the private sector for decades.

“He lacks worldliness, he lacks vision, but it is nothing that cannot be learned, and there comes into play his tenacity,” said German Dehesa, a writer and columnist. Political analysts say it would be a mistake to underestimate Calderon, who holds advanced degrees in law, economics and public administration. The son of one of the Nation Action Party’s founders, he has been active in politics since he was a youth and became the party’s youngest leader in its history in 1993.