A Tough Beginning

Friday, December 15, 2006

WHEN FELIPE Calderón took office as Mexican president two weeks ago, the dominant question was whether he would be able to govern the country. Having won election by a razor-thin margin, he faced a virtual insurrection on the part of the leftist populist he defeated, plus a separate standoff with militants attempting to overthrow an unpopular state governor and escalating violence by drug traffickers. It wasn't even clear that he would manage to take the oath of office, since opposition militants vowed to physically block him from entering Congress.

Fortunately Mr. Calderón has opened his presidency with aggressiveness and skill. He outmaneuvered the congressional dissidents at his swearing-in; five days later, he ordered the arrest of one of the main leaders of the violent protests in Oaxaca state. Next came a raid on the offices of Oaxaca state police and prosecutors, who had failed to act against those who shot and killed some of the anti-government protesters.

This week Mr. Calderón launched an offensive against the drug traffickers, dispatching 6,500 federal forces to his home state of Michoacan. Feuding gangsters there have committed some 500 murders this year, including a series of grisly beheadings. Though no one expects that the gangs will be quickly vanquished, the new president has sent an important message: He does not intend to allow his narrow election to produce a weak or indecisive government.

That is fortunate, because after six years of passivity and political impasse under former president Vicente Fox, Mexico badly needs an effective leader. In addition to the dangers of political rebellion and criminal disorder, Mexico's economy is being held back by monopolies and unions whose resistance to competition and deregulation needs to be tackled. There are also unnecessary obstacles to foreign investment, especially in the energy sector. Mr. Calderón has spoken of the need for tax and fiscal reform that would leave the government less dependent on revenue from the state oil company.

So far Mr. Calderón has accompanied his law-and-order campaign with populist gestures: He slashed his own salary and the presidential budget and adopted some of the social spending measures championed by Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the failed presidential candidate who now seeks to destroy Mexico's democracy. Considering the divided electorate and Mr. Calderón's shaky starting point, that looks wise. Good politics and aggressive law enforcement should help to increase and consolidate the new president's authority. Then he will have to use it to push through the institutional and structural reforms Mexico needs to thrive.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company