Will Mexican Congress Check President's Power?

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Mexico’s presidential vote, set for Sunday, has the media’s full attention. But the congressional elections may be equally important. Many voters hope a new Congress can blunt the power of the presidency.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

This is DAY TO DAY, I'm Madeleine Brand.

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

And I'm Alex Chadwick. Coming up, the story of a young New Hampshire war widow.

BRAND: First this. Mexico is electing it's President this Sunday. That race is gotten a lot of attention. And it's a nail biter. Opinion polls show the leading candidates neck and neck. They are conservative Felipe Calderon, and liberal Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador.

A record 40 million people are expected to turn out to vote.

CHADWICK: As important for Mexico's political future is the Mexican Congressional Election. This weekend voters are going to elect all the members of both houses of congress. Michael O'Boyle reports from Mexico City.

(Soundbite of meeting)

MICHAEL O'BOYLE reporting:

It's the last meeting of congress before elections this Sunday. Lawmakers are debating which party is more guilty of manipulating welfare programs to buy votes. Sterile debates like this one help explain why Mexico's congress has been considered so inefficient.

Vicente Fox's election in 2000 ended 70 years of one-party rule by the Institutional Revolution Party, or PRI. But while he won the presidency, the PRI has held on to more than a third of congressional seats. The leftist PRD has nearly a quarter. Fox's National Action Party, or PAN, holds slightly less than a third.

During the last six years, the divided congress has been unwilling to approve any of Fox's major economic reforms. Lower house lawmaker Tomas Trueba from Fox's PAN says the congressional paralysis seen on economic issues is holding Mexico back.

Mr. TOMAS TRUEBA (Lower House Member) (Through translation): These congressional elections are even more important than the presidential race. Because we have seen that it is in the congress where you have to reach the consensus needed to make this country governable.

O'BOYLE: According to the polls, the new congress to be elected this Sunday is likely to end up just as dividend as the current one. So whoever wins the presidency probably won't have a legislative majority and will be forced to continue bargaining with the other parties in congress.

The deadlock that dominated Fox's term has left many Mexicans frustrated with their lawmakers.

(Soundbite of music)

O'BOYLE: Twenty-four-year-old Jose Garay(ph) sells clothes from his stand outside a subway stop.

Mr. JOSE GARAY (Clothes Vendor) (Through translation): I would like to see the parties work together in coalition instead of fighting. We Mexicans have been waiting a long time for results and the parties need to work together for the good of the nation instead of just looking after their own interests.

O'BOYLE: The goal of cooperation between the parties may be a long time coming. Roughly a third of Mexico's lawmakers are not directly elected but appointed by party leaders. That's stacks much of the congress with party apparatchiks. Furthermore, there is no re-election for any post in Mexico. That means lawmakers aren't very concerned with pleasing their constituents in order to win re-election.

Rather, lawmakers want to satisfy their party leaders, who determine their next political appointment. Benito Nacif, an academic who studies congress at Mexico City's Cide University, says about 60 percent of Mexican lawmakers have never held a elected office in the past.

Prof. BANITO NACIF (Seeda University): The degree of professionalization within the Chamber of Deputies and the senate is very limited.

O'BOYLE: Nacif thinks Mexico must allow for the re-election of its lawmakers as well as enacting other reforms to create a more professional and responsive legislature. In the meantime, the chances are slim that the next congress will be able to more forward on the major economic reforms that Mexico needs.

Leftist Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador is leading polls to win the presidency this Sunday, but just barely. When he was mayor of Mexico City, his relationship with the opposition in the city assembly was conflicted. Some consider him stubborn and unwilling to negotiate. If that holds true, and he becomes president, Mexico could be headed for six more years of deadlock. For NPR News, I'm Michael O'Boyle in Mexico City.

(Soundbite of music)

CHADWICK: NPR News has more on the top presidential candidates in this election plus an analysis of the biggest issues that a new Mexican congress will have to face after the election. You can find all that at NPR.org.

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