Challenger in Mexico is attracting wide support

Presidential candidate teams leftist positions, conservative credentials


MEXICO CITY - To his opponents, Vicente Fox, who is mounting the most serious challenge to Mexico's governing party in a presidential election in 70 years, is a political chameleon who talks out of both sides of his mouth.

To his supporters, he is a clever strategist who has built strength well beyond his small rightist party by defying ideological labels.

It is clear that by pairing strong conservative credentials with a center-left position on a range of issues Fox has succeeded in attracting supporters from across the political landscape.

He has received backing from conservative landowners and executives and also managed to wrest support from Cuauhtemoc Cardenas, the three-time leftist candidate who is running a distant third in the July 2 presidential race.

In the process, however, Fox has wandered frequently into inconsistencies that have allowed his main rival, Francisco Labastida of the governing Institutional Revolutionary Party, to portray him as a slippery politician.

In 1996, Fox acknowledged on a trip to New York that he favored privatizing the state-owned oil monopoly, Pemex, which is a symbol of Mexican nationalism. In recent weeks, Labastida's commercials have portrayed those comments as treasonous. In response, Fox surrounded himself in one recent campaign ceremony with former Communists and socialists who back his candidacy and pledged never to privatize Pemex.

In using issues against Fox, his adversaries have in some cases distorted his position. At other times, Fox has paid a price for speaking too glibly, as when he said in 1997 that he could solve the Chiapas conflict "in 15 minutes." And sometimes he has waded into trouble by sharply changing the tone, if not the substance, of his statements before different audiences.

This spring, Fox attended a bankers' convention in Acapulco and, four days later, a congress of small entrepreneurs. Fox praised the bankers for keeping their institutions afloat in the turmoil that followed the 1994 peso devaluation. He mentioned, briefly, that financiers who committed fraud during the $90 billion taxpayer-financed bank bailout that followed the crisis "must be brought to justice" but did not dwell on that uncomfortable topic. The bankers reacted with roaring applause.

"Fox told us what we wanted to hear," said Roberto Gonzalez, one bank president.

Then Fox met with the small entrepreneurs, who loathe the bankers because, even though taxpayer funds rescued the banks after the 1994 crisis, they have refused to extend loans to thousands of small businesses sliding into bankruptcy for lack of credit.

Not surprisingly, the entrepreneurs voiced their resentments to Fox, who joined right in, lashing the bankers' inefficiency and this time detailing at length his plans for prosecuting those suspected of fraud. Labastida and Cardenas called him a hypocrite.

"One day he says south, and the next day he says north," Labastida said in a recent interview aboard his campaign jet. "One day he tells the bankers they're guilty of nothing, and later he tells the industrialists he'll put the bankers in jail. He's a question mark in boots."

Fox wears boots to remind voters of his upbringing on an arid ranch in Guanajuato in central Mexico. In the 1920s, the armies of the postrevolutionary government waged a violent campaign in the region to suppress the Roman Catholic Church, defended by peasant insurgents, the Cristeros. By some estimates, 250,000 Mexicans died in the conflict.

Fox has invited comparisons between the Cristeros' struggle and his crusade to defeat the governing party, ending campaign rallies with a Cristeros war cry: "If I advance, follow me! If I stop, push me! If I retreat, kill me!"

Fox was educated by Jesuits before embarking on a business career that included five years as president of Coca-Cola's Mexican unit.

When he entered politics with a 1988 run for Congress, he joined the National Action Party, known as the PAN.

Founded in 1939 by Catholic professionals and shopkeepers opposed to President Lazaro Cardenas, Cuauhtemoc's father, whom they considered a socialist, the party was for half a century Mexico's only permanent opposition party. That made it a natural vehicle for Fox, but he had a complaint: The party had won few elections.

"For many years, the PAN was led by great theoreticians, but they didn't think about how to take power," Fox wrote in a campaign autobiography. "They lacked hunger for victory."

Fox, in contrast, showed a fierce will to win.

After what many Mexicans considered to be a fraudulent victory by the governing party in the 1988 presidential balloting, he and other opposition congressmen tried, physically, to retrieve disputed ballots from the basement of the Congress building where they were stored. Soldiers, rifles raised, barred their way, but his gutsy stand won him admirers.

He turned his first run for Guanajuato governor in 1991 into a crusade against governing party corruption.

After an election that Fox called fraudulent, he led weeks of street protests but was eventually denied the governorship. Running again four years later, he won easily. He installed conservative businessmen and landowners from the National Action Party in many posts but also appointed a member of the governing party as state auditor.

Throughout most of the 1990s, Fox pursued a cordial dialogue with a changing group of leftist intellectuals, often at the Mexico City home of Jorge Castaneda, the author who maintains contact with former guerrillas and socialists from across Latin America.

Roberto Mangabeira Unger, a Harvard University professor who is a Brazilian political theorist, recalled meeting Fox in 1996.

"He's not tied to the old orthodoxies; he's seeking a different way for Mexico. And by this standard he's much more of a leftist than Cardenas or Labastida," Unger said.

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