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In Mexico, Fears Of a Populist President

By Rossana Fuentes Berain
Saturday, April 23, 2005; Page A19

MEXICO CITY -- The Mexican Congress voted recently to strip this city's mayor, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, of his immunity from prosecution for an allegedly illegal act by his administration -- thus endangering his expected run for president. But of course, this is not the end of the story. Lopez Obrador may well garner enough support for his cause to get on the ticket, raising this question: Is this populist mayor someone to be feared? Is he another Hugo Chavez, who will create turmoil in domestic and foreign affairs while pursuing an agenda of radical change?

Not likely, I would say. Mexico is not Venezuela. State and federal institutions are strong. We also have a more diversified economy and a private sector less dependent on governmental actions. So, even if he is not defeated at the polls, which he very well could be, we in Mexico would do better to learn to live with him than to risk derailing our young democratic process.

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It's clear that no politician should be above the law. But the misdemeanor with which Lopez Obrador is being charged (the building of a road in violation of a court order) should not be allowed to trigger a political crisis that could undermine hard-won economic stability.

This is a situation that requires an enlightened approach by many people. The defendant himself should stop acting as if he would rather play the role of a political martyr than embrace a valid legal defense.

The judiciary should expedite the process and base its action on the legal facts of the case -- not political considerations.

President Vicente Fox has to overcome his obvious dislike for this contender and behave in a statesmanlike manner. As a president who wants to go down in history as a beacon of Mexico's democracy, he needs to understand that it's up to the electorate, not him, to decide whether Lopez Obrador is the right man for the office.

Finally the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) should bet on its proven record of electoral strength rather than reverting to its old, bad habits of rigging the process or the results.

And what should the United States do in this situation? Nothing. At least nothing but sit tight and be patient. I know that's hardly within the nature of an activist country, but it's exactly what Washington needs to do.

Lopez Obrador, should he win, is unlikely to join Chavez and Fidel Castro in a sort of Latin American axis of evil. That is so not only for the institutional reasons mentioned above but because of important economic considerations, the most important being the fact that monetary policy in Mexico is set by an autonomous Central Bank whose head, Guillermo Ortiz, cannot be removed.

As for Lopez Obrador's comments about restructuring Mexico's debt (comments that understandably frighten the markets, given the recent Argentine experience), his economic advisers are adamant in maintaining that this would have to do with renegotiating terms rather than with seeking debt reduction.

Where a Lopez Obrador presidency could really be a problem is in the matter of unfinished structural reforms -- in energy, labor and fiscal affairs. His political shortsightedness could stall long-overdue action in these areas, with unfortunate effects on Mexico's competitiveness with China and other countries.

In a perfect world, this and Lopez Obrador's disregard for the law, as shown in the current case against him, would be enough for the electorate to reject him. In the real world, where there is deep discontent in many parts of the population, he must be regarded as a serious candidate. These are difficult times. We need to weather them and to keep our eyes on the main prize: a long-term North American compact.

The good news is that Mexico has changed radically in the past 20 years. We have chosen a free-market model, our private sector is competing internationally, our citizens are enjoying their freedom to choose -- whether it is consumer products or politicians they are choosing. We will not let that be taken away from us. There is no room for a Chavez in Mexico.

The writer is managing editor of Foreign Affairs en Español and a professor at the Mexico Institute of Technology.

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