Three months from now, when Mexico's new president Felipe Calderón takes office, many will consider it a dubious honour. These are perhaps the only two certainties in Mexico's politics right now. With oil prices higher than ever, its country-risk premiums lower than ever, remittances from abroad, tourism revenues and foreign investment hitting all time highs, and annual GDP growth estimated at 4.2% for this year, Mexicans - in many ways - have never had it so good.

Indeed, after 10 years of uninterrupted macroeconomic stability - something Mexico had not experienced since the 1960s - the middle class has expanded dramatically, and reasonably priced bank credit is now available to millions who had been excluded in the past. Yet, despite these robust changes, poverty remains widespread, inequality abysmal, and social resentment is on the rise.

This is why Calderón's opponent in July's presidential election, the populist Andrés Manuel López Obrador, obtained such a large percentage of the vote compared to the Mexican left's previous high-water mark in the election of 2000. But it was not enough to win an election that López Obrador and his backers thought was in the bag.

The extremely tight race - Calderón won by 0.5% of the vote - and the profound disappointment suffered by López Obrador and his supporters led them to contest the ruling of Mexico's electoral authorities, and to refuse to acknowledge Calderón's victory. Instead, López Obrador, a former Mexico City mayor, and his supporters demanded a vote-by-vote recount, which is not mandated - though it is not proscribed - by the country's electoral laws. The electoral court, however, decided otherwise. This is where Mexico stands today: a mess by any definition, with no obvious solution in sight.

In the long run, the answer undoubtedly lies in the transformation of the Mexican left, and partly also of the Mexican right. For years, both were de facto subsumed within the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which ruled Mexico for seven decades. That epoch came to an end in 2000, and will not return. Today, right and left, as well as the PRI itself, are all separate entities, and have a great deal of reconstruction to do.

The right-of-centre Party of National Action (PAN), the grouping of current president, Vicente Fox, and Calderón, needs to acquire a sincere and profound social conscience. It must transform itself into something like the Social Christian or Christian Democratic parties that exist in Costa Rica, Chile, Venezuela and Peru. Otherwise, it will continue to be seen by Mexico's impoverished masses as the party of the rich - perhaps unfairly, but not entirely unjustly. PAN's metamorphosis is underway, but there is still much work to be done.

Much more importantly, however - and perhaps to the surprise of many benevolent international observers - the Mexican left is nowhere near transforming itself into a modern, reformist, social-democratic party. Not only is it not New Labour; it is not even like the French, Spanish, or Chilean Socialist parties, or Brazil's Workers' party. It continues to be a movement with a revolutionary faction - not a majority, but certainly a large minority - bent on insurrection, socialism, and "anti-imperialist" alignment with Cuba and Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez.

Mexico's left refuses truly to embrace market economics, representative democracy, and the rule of law. Obviously, many of its members and leaders do subscribe to these tenets, and disapprove in private of López Obrador's rabble-rousing antics. But, as long they remain relatively powerless, Mexico will remain unbalanced, deprived of the modern left that it needs to combat poverty and inequality, and hostage to those who still believe in revolution and the assault on the Winter Palace.

Without these twin transformations of its right and left, Mexico can only keep running in place, while so many others speed forward. But change will not happen overnight, so Mexico needs short-term solutions to its travails. The most urgent, feasible, and relevant steps involve electoral and legal reforms aimed at avoiding a repeat of the current protests over the presidential vote. These include establishing a second-round run-off in presidential elections, so that Mexico's next president has a mandate supported by more than 50% of the voters. But they also entail the re-election of representatives and senators, recourse to referendums for constitutional amendments, and independent candidacies.

Perhaps most importantly, Mexico must devise a French-style semi-presidential system whereby a designated prime minister is responsible for building majorities in Congress, and must be ratified by the latter. Eliminating the purchase of airtime on radio and television during campaigns, with the consequent reduction in their cost, would complement these changes.

None of these indispensable and long-postponed reforms will convince López Obrador's followers that the end of poverty and inequality in Mexico is around the corner. But no significant improvement on these fronts can occur without thoroughly refashioning the country's decision-making process. Fox and his team thought that the mechanisms that worked during the authoritarian period could simply be transferred to the democratic era and function smoothly. In fact, none of the major economic and social reforms Mexico desperately needs in order to grow more rapidly, distribute wealth more evenly, and combat poverty more effectively can be passed if the institutional scaffolding is not rebuilt.

That is what Calderón can and must do in order to render moot today's debates about the fairness of the election that brought him to power. It is time for Mexico to turn the page, but it must turn the right page.



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