Mexico Ushers in a New Day

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Vicente Fox will become Mexico's first opposition president in modern history

Vicente Fox Posada's biggest enemy might, perhaps, be his people's high expectations of a new political order in Mexico. But the mammoth odds against his efforts to reform his country's torpid economic and political system give him a Quixotic sheen, which has everyone from the poorest peasants in Oaxaca to the most worldly wise diplomats in Mexico City ready to extend him a generous line of political credit.

The former Coca-Cola executive will be sworn in as president Friday, after improbably breaking the seven-decade grip on power of the Institutional Revolutionary Party in last summer's elections. Indeed, today's inauguration marks the first peaceful transfer of power from one party to another in 179 years. And nothing Fox learned at Coke or at business school will have prepared him for the challenge of tearing down a corrupt federal bureaucracy comprising 1.6 million people, which has entrenched the interests of a tiny economic elite for the past 70 years.

For a man who'll need all the help he can get, Fox's room for maneuver is exceedingly narrow. For starters, some 80 percent of his national budget is already spoken for in paying off external debt and the residue of Mexico's banking scandal, which will devour about $5 billion in interest. That gives him little to spend on efforts to promote economic growth, which remains his overarching priority. But even if he had the money to spend, he'd have to contend with the fact that he lacks a majority in the legislature, and most state governors still belong to the PRI. The charisma and swagger that helped him sweep out the PRI with only limited backing from his own National Action Party (PAN) aren't going to help him govern — his success now will rest on his ability to cut deals and make alliances.

Fox will need the congressional backing of many in the PRI and the smaller opposition Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD) for his campaign to restructure the security system to make it less corrupt and more responsive. He'll need them even more in his campaign to privatize more of the country's energy sector, which is a tall order in a nation whose electorate thinks of Mexico's oil as a national resource and has blocked every previous effort toward privatization. But in Fox's scheme, privatization remains the key to attracting the foreign investment necessary to achieve his economic growth targets.

As desperate as the odds may appear, Fox still has plenty going for him. The corrupt vested interests that dominate the bureaucracy may be intimately entwined with the PRI, but the former ruling party is in disarray, and that gives the new president plenty of openings. To be sure, the PRI's power structure was built on an elaborate system of patronage, and being in opposition considerably diminishes the party's ability to deliver to its regional and local baronies and fiefdoms. That will allow Fox to bolster political support for his own programs by going directly to PRI governors and congressmen and offering them deals that will help their states and districts in exchange for political support.

More importantly, perhaps, Fox's election victory gave Mexicans a first taste of the power of democracy to change the way they're governed, and that has to have struck fear into the PRI pooh-bahs. Fox is starting out with a 70 percent approval rating, and that may make many PRI officials more inclined to cut deals with him than to tempt the ire of the electorate by openly opposing him.

A Mexican president is always better off with backing from El Norte, and Fox wants changes in Washington's approach on issues ranging from the war on drugs to immigration. He may not be helped by the fact that in his commitment to political diversity in his cabinet, he has appointed as foreign minister the left-leaning academic Jorge Castanedo, often an outspoken critic of the U.S. But Wall Street and Washington have both responded positively to his economic appointments, and no matter who his foreign minister is, Fox will likely be able to draw on a considerable reservoir of U.S. goodwill for quite some time. After all, it's hard not to root for someone who appears to dream the impossible dream.