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Mexico elects enigmatic party along with Fox

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MEXICO CITY — After celebrating the historic defeat of their long-ruling party, many Mexicans are beginning to wonder exactly what the party behind their newly elected leader stands for.

By voting Sunday for change and electing rancher and former Coca-Cola executive Vicente Fox as president, Mexicans ushered in an ideologically diverse party to replace the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) that has ruled the nation since 1929.

Fox's National Action Party (PAN) has traditionally been characterized as "center-right" and "conservative," descriptions that underscore its nature as a pro-business party seeking to lure investment and foster growth.

But historic ties to the Roman Catholic Church have worried Mexicans who think the party might go too far in asserting its moral views—an idea not helped by a PAN-ruled city's bid to ban miniskirts and nude male dancing a few years ago.

Now, Mexico is wondering just which of the economic and social elements of the 61-year-old PAN Fox will choose to flush out, or if he will perhaps redefine the movement altogether.

"The fact is that the PAN established itself as the party of change, which removes the conservative element," said Javier Hurtado, head of the University of Guadalajara's political science department. "People did not vote for Fox for his ideology."

Long-suffering opposition

The PAN was formed in 1939 as a counterweight to the government of Lazaro Cardenas, who imposed a leftist, nationalistic bent on the PRI's forerunner, expropriating Mexico's oil wells and pushing through a huge land redistribution program.

The PAN remained a long-suffering opposition group until 1989, when it won the governorship of northern Baja California state. It racked up five more governorships in the following years, including Fox's tenure at the helm of the state of Guanajuato, and gained increased power in Congress in recent elections as the PRI was forced to loosen its grip on power.

Sunday's victory was largely the work of the 58-year-old Fox, who spent a grueling three years on the road campaigning to lure new blood to his support base. By last year, he had enough support to leave the PAN little choice but to make him their candidate.

"It took it 61 years to get here—very few parties in the world would last that long," said political scientist Federico Estevez of Mexico City's ITAM University. "It came alive because of the influx of people like Fox."

Economics in line

Fox's core economic program meshes well with the pro-business plank of the PAN. As governor of Guanajuato, Fox—who spent the bulk of his career in the private sector at Coca-Cola—tried to bring investment and jobs by luring companies to set up operations in the farming and industrial state.

The president-elect has vowed to foster growth of 7 percent a year by the second half of his term and reduce inflation to U.S. levels, around 3 percent at the moment—promises also in line with key proposals of PRI candidate Francisco Labastida.

It is on the cultural and social plane that Fox could diverge from his party. Though Fox is a church-going Catholic and has said he opposes abortion, analysts do not see him imposing morality-based policies unless widely supported by the country at large. He has pledged to keep education secular, for example.

"Fox will take this party in a new direction. It doesn't mean they'll abandon the liberal economic policies or this residual Catholicism," said Estevez.

"But Fox is so pragmatic and willing to strike a deal that he's not willing to be an ideologue."

Party squabbles ahead?

Fox's ascendancy in the PAN and the possibility he may break with the party's social conservatism may bring him nettlesome challenges in the lower house, where the PAN and a smaller allied party will not have an outright majority but will be the largest minority.

The young crowd of supporters he drew into the party and who will now serve in Congress—people whose primary goal was to oust the PRI—could clash with the more traditional, right-leaning wing of the PAN.

"Fox knows that in no way will the people support a mixing of religion and politics," said Hurtado.

But Fox is seen as the victor in this scenario, since it was his grass-roots organization, recruiting efforts and strength as a politician that transformed the PAN into a ruling party.

"I don't think Fox will stand for it. They (the traditional factions) will just be crying in the wilderness," said Estevez.