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Can Vicente Fox Turn Mexico Around?

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OK, we'll resist the temptation to invoke the "now for the hard part" clichÚ for Mexico's new president-elect, Vicente Fox. But that doesn't mean the former Coca-Cola executive is going to have an easy time delivering on his promises to root out crime and corruption, resolve the Chiapas rebellion and spread the benefits of NAFTA. And his quest to persuade Al Gore and George W. Bush to relax immigration controls is unlikely even to make it to the focus-group testing stage. Still, Mexicans have smashed the mold of one-party rule, and after 71 years of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) there's no telling what a new political paradigm could do their system.

Still, a few predictions might be in order.

UPROOTING PATRONAGE: Fox has taken control of the government, but that doesn't always translate into control over the state. PRI apparatchiks have built an elaborate system of patronage over the decades, using their control over the levers of local and national government to pay their way into power. That system failed them this time around, but they retain their entrenched positions in much of Mexico's administrative bureaucracy, justice system and military. If Fox tries to make life difficult for them, they could return the favor with interest, which might jeopardize his prospects for holding power the next time around. But with the PRI in disarray and with some of its elements — including incumbent president Ernesto Zedillo — showing considerable enthusiasm for working with Fox, he may have substantial room to maneuver. VERDICT: It may be tough going, but with rats deserting PRI's sinking ship, he has the wind at his back.

WIPING OUT CORRUPTION: Fox has declared rooting out corruption his priority, and that puts him on a collision course with the country's powerful narco-traffickers. Repeated efforts by President Zedillo to clean up law enforcement came to naught as the drug cartels swiftly infiltrated each new incarnation of government "untouchables." Analysts suspected that another six years of the PRI would have left the narcos so firmly entrenched at every level of government that they would have become impossible to eradicate. Fox's plan to create an independent FBI-type organization carefully filtered to find a few good men creates the best hope for putting law enforcement beyond the reach of politicians and gangsters. But Fox has no magic formula to inoculate against the allure of drug money in an impoverished nation, and while success will mean a setback for the traffickers, the economics of the drug trade in Mexican society may weigh against him. VERDICT: A temporary setback for the narcos is probably the best Fox can hope for until the economics of drug trafficking change.

HELPING THE POOR: Fox's own populist economic pronouncements — he's vowed not to pass any budget that doesn't concretely aid the poor — aren't exactly conventional wisdom in the corridors of international financial power, and the president-elect's priority is bringing in foreign investment to bump Mexico's 5.6 percent annual growth rate up to 7 percent. That will mean staying with IMF-friendly economic programs for the most part, despite the rhetoric. VERDICT: Don't bet on it.

SLOWING EMIGRATION: While his advocacy of relaxed borders and expanded investment on the Mexican side to stop the northward rush may reflect a thoughtful attempt to address the underlying economics of emigration — Mexicans leave in search of jobs, and they'll keep doing so until they can find work at home, which requires economic development — they're unlikely to raise much enthusiasm in Washington. Still, as the popular candidate of a society hungry for change, he's duty-bound to forcefully assert his nation's interests even when those conflict with those of U.S. presidential candidates. VERDICT: Not for the foreseeable future.

Fox will have many rivers to cross before realizing his promises, but a nation as hungry for change as Mexico was when it went to the polls last weekend may be generous with its honeymoon period. For many Mexicans, after all, it's less important what Fox is than what he isn't — the PRI.