Mexico's Pena Nieto Scores Early Political Wins - but Can He Sustain Support?

Article excerpt

Progress toward big promises: That was President Enrique Pena Nieto's message this week in his first state of the union address.

Mr. Pena Nieto has had, in many ways, a strong start. A pact signed by the three top political parties just a day after he took office Dec. 1 has allowed him to pass much needed reforms that he says will go on to make Mexico more competitive globally and stimulate a sluggish economy.

An education reform and another that would increase competition in the telecommunications industry, which is heavily dominated by a single company, have won legislative approval. And progress has been made on others, including one reform that would bolster access to credit by small businesses. But observers say some of the most contentious challenges lie ahead, especially energy and tax reform.

Yet the changes Pena Nieto has sponsored won't make visible differences in Mexico's economy or day-to-day life overnight, even if they succeed. While the president has garnered kudos internationally and among Mexico's elite for proposing an economic transformation, as he moves forward in his six-year tenure he will need assure the Mexican population that their patience will pay off.

"One of the arguments for the reforms is that they are going to have an impact on economic growth," says Carlos Bravo Regidor, political science professor at Mexico's Center for Research and Teaching in Economics (CIDE). "That may be true theoretically, but it will take a long time."

Mexico's economy isn't growing as expected, and the country's notorious drug violence hasn't faded. These issues consistently show up at the top of polls of Mexicans' most pressing concerns. Pena Nieto's approval rating after nine months in office stands at 56 percent, according to a survey by Consulta Mitofsky. That's worse than his two predecessors at the same point in their tenures: Felipe Calderon earned 66 percent approval and Vicente Fox 62 percent.

Protests - some violent - against education, energy, and tax reforms broke out across the capital on Sunday. Teachers continue to march against laws that define the education reform and have called for a nationwide "day of insurrection" on Wednesday in at least 22 states and the capital.

Reform-mindedPena Nieto's Institutional Revolutionary Party wants to reform the energy sector, opening both the national oil monopoly Petroleos Mexicanos and the state-controlled Federal Electricity Commission to outside investment. They can likely count on the support from the conservative opposition, the National Action Party. But the leftist Democratic Revolution Party has said it will oppose anything that smacks of privatization, putting in jeopardy the "Pact for Mexico" that smoothed the legislative path for the earlier reforms.

Pena Nieto also wants to boost the state's ability to collect taxes. It's a very tough sell in a lethargic economy. …