Old Politics Are New Again In Mexico

What happened to Mexico's National Action Party? It was the party that finally broke seven decades of PRI rule in the country and promised to bring long sought-after reforms to the country. Why did voters throw them out of office after two terms? Was the vote a referendum on Felipe Calderon's war on drugs?

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In Mexico, last weekend's victory of the P-R-I or PRI was also a stunning defeat for the party that had been in power since 2000. The National Action Party, known as PAN, was thrashed at the polls. Mexican voters were unhappy about the economy and the spreading violence of the drug war. It's a big setback for the party credited with ousting the PRI 12 years ago and ushering in a new era of democracy for Mexico.

From Mexico City, NPR's Carrie Kahn reports.

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: Miguel Angel Benitez Garcia waited more than an hour in the hot sun to cast his vote last Sunday. The wait didn't bother him. He said he was more upset about how little Mexico had changed since the PAN Party was at the helm.

MIGUEL ANGEL BENITEZ: (Speaking foreign language)

KAHN: Benitez, who works for a cleaning product company, voted for another party. He says Mexico remains the same. He said the PAN Party made a few changes, but not the real ones he had hoped for when he voted for them 12 years ago.

Expectations were exceedingly high back then in 2000, when Mexico held its first truly democratic elections. Voters overwhelmingly chose the PAN Party and its candidate Vicente Fox, a former Coca-Cola executive. Six years later, voters stayed with the PAN, although by a much smaller margin, and elected Felipe Calderon as president.

But during those two administrations, job growth has been tepid, much promised reforms never materialized, and Calderon launched what has been a very unpopular war against the country's violent drug cartels.

Political analyst Denise Dresser says Mexico's entrenched monopolies went untouched.

DENISE DRESSER: The National Action Party, in many ways, emulated the PRI in the way in which it conducted itself in government, supporting corporatist leaders, supporting corrupt oil worker union leaders.

KAHN: And Dresser says, in many cases, the PAN copied the same corrupt and coercive practices as its much criticized rivals. Voters clearly punished the PAN this week. It placed a distant third in the presidential election, took a beating in legislative races and even lost the governorship in the state of Jalisco - a post it had held since 1995.

Blame for the loses is in full swing now, much of it directed at the PAN's presidential candidate Josefna Vasquez Mota. Her campaign was plagued by poor coordination and early missteps. She struggled to distance herself from the current unpopular administration, or to define herself beyond vague campaign ads of Josefina Differente - Josefina Different.

And many are mad at the PAN's Former President Vicente Fox, who openly endorsed the PRI's candidate and criticized his own party, unheard of in Mexican political circles.

VICENTE FOX: Today, you cannot distinguish a PAN government from a PRI government in relation to corruption, in relation to efficiency.

KAHN: Speaking at the Fox Center for Democracy and Presidential Library he built for himself in the State of Guanajuato, Fox says he understands his statements were controversial, but he believes his party does not deserve to stay in power.

FOX: My loyalty is to Mexico, not to PAN. I know PAN is an instrument, but today, it is not the right instrument or it's not doing what it should be doing.

KAHN: He says Mexico's democracy will be stronger with this alternation of powers. And many say the PAN needs this time to regroup and reassess its role in Mexico's nascent democracy.

Luis Carlos Lopez Ullo, an official biographer of the party, says the PAN is having an identity crisis.

LUIS CARLOS LOPEZ ULLO: (Speaking foreign language)

KAHN: Lopez says for most of its political life, nearly seven decades, the PAN was in the opposition. He says its membership has always been closely guarded, akin to a fraternity. Lopez says the party must open up and expand its base if it's going to bounce back and once again be a major player in politics.

Former Baja California Governor Eugenio Elorduy, a longtime PAN member, says the party will recover. Mexico needs strong competitive political parties.

EUGENIO ELORDUY: We are still, I think, in the initial stage of democracy we are still far away from really having democracy all over Mexico.

KAHN: PAN officials insist the party will continue to play a critical role in Mexico's democracy. However after this week's election, it will be a much smaller one.

Carrie Kahn, NPR News, Mexico City.

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