How ten years in power have changed the former opposition leaders
Sep 2nd 2010 | MEXICO CITY
SKULKING around Morelia after dark, a 17-year-old Agustín Torres would wait until midnight before sticking up posters for the National Action Party (PAN). Any earlier, and he risked being photographed by authorities monitoring subversives in the western city. “I wanted to be against the system, so I joined the PAN,” says Mr Torres, now 33 and a congressman.
These days, the PAN is part of the system. After 61 years in opposition, it wrested the presidency from the hegemonic Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) in 2000 and held it in 2006. Its strengths reflect its legacy as the protagonist of Mexico’s transition to multi-party democracy. Unlike the big-tent PRI, the conservative PAN knows what it stands for. “Whereas the PRI is driven by power, the PAN tends to be driven by ideology,” says Luis Rubio, the head of CIDAC, a think-tank. And unlike the fractious Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), its leftist counterpart, the PAN runs a slick operation. It even boasts an international reach, winning 57% of the expatriate vote in 2006.
Yet its two presidents, Vicente Fox and then Felipe Calderón, are often seen as disappointments. Much of the fault for their failure to pass big reforms lies with Mexico’s gridlocked political system: with three big parties in Congress, forming majorities is hard, and the super-majorities needed to amend the constitution even harder. Moreover, the PRI has always retained the majority of state governorships. But the PAN cannot escape blame for a decade of limp economic growth and rising concern over crime. It lost the midterm votes of 2003 and 2009 badly. “It’s much simpler to be an opposition party than a governing party,” says César Nava, the PAN’s president.
The biggest difficulty has been managing relations between party and government, which, Mr Nava says, each have “their own temperament and their own ends”. Mr Calderón has often been criticised for appointing mere PAN loyalists to his cabinet. His inability to find experts within the party’s ranks shows that it has not developed a governing class to match the old regime. “The PRI had a lot of dinosaurs,” as traditional machine politicians are called, “but a very sophisticated elite,” says Soledad Loaeza, a political scientist at the Colegio de México, a graduate school.
The party’s ideological consistency also risks calcifying. Mr Rubio speculates that the PAN’s abundance of true believers may be hindering its intellectual development. Its social conservatism has limited its appeal in cosmopolitan Mexico City, where the mayor, the PRD’s Marcelo Ebrard, has legalised gay adoption. Thanks in part to the influence of a secretive Catholic society called ElYunque (The Anvil), the party has taken a hard line on abortion, which even rape victims find hard to obtain in some PAN-run states.
The party leadership is becoming more flexible. In July’s elections for state governors, it formed an alliance with the PRD that Manlio Fabio Beltrones, the PRI’s leader in the Senate, deemed “against nature”. Fernando Gómez Mont, Mr Calderón’s then-interior minister, left the PAN in protest. Yet the alliance beat expectations and took three large states from the PRI. However, the PAN has also begun to compromise its principles in less savoury ways: Mr Calderón was censured by the electoral authorities for giving a televised address 19 days before the vote.
The real test for the PAN will come in 2012. In the most recent presidential election, the PRI’s entrant was crippled by a bitter nomination fight. The party is bent on uniting around a candidate this time. The telegenic governor of the state of Mexico, Enrique Peña Nieto, is now the front-runner. If he falters, Mr Beltrones awaits.
Mr Calderón cannot run again, and the PAN’s bench looks weak. The best hope for the party to keep the PRI out of power might well be to back Mr Ebrard. His social liberalism would test PAN voters’ loyalty, causing party leaders to say such a deal is unlikely, though not impossible. Even if their opposition could be overcome, an alliance would sink Mr Calderón’s legislative agenda—the PRI, which controls the lower house of Congress, is already vowing to block it in protest at the state-level PAN-PRD pact. Yet after 61 years in opposition, the PAN will now contemplate anything to keep its old rivals at bay.