Mexico's new leader moves to ease apprehensions after stunning election

MEXICO CITY - President-elect Vicente Fox sought Monday to reassure a country giddy, stunned and a bit fearful of what it had done - elected an opposition candidate for the first time in more than a century.

''We cannot fail because we have awakened too many expectations, too many dreams and desires,'' Fox said in a broadcast Monday on independent Radio Red.

Fox stressed continuity, saying he would meet with outgoing President Ernesto Zedillo to discuss the unprecedented transition. Still, the impact of his victory in Sunday's election will be felt throughout Mexican society, which is woven with groups tied to the defeated Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI.

In an interview with The Associated Press, Fox said he would form ''a very transparent, accountable government. We will have moral authority and democratic legitimacy.''

Later, he met with Zedillo at the presidential residence and said they agreed to work together for a peaceful and orderly transition and to formulate together the budget proposal that Zedillo must send to Congress before Fox takes office.

''We have some clear ideas about next year's budget but on the other hand, there is a need to take advantage of the government's experience,'' Fox said.

During his campaign, Fox portrayed himself both as a brash, tough-talking cowboy and as a former businessman and consensus-seeking governor. On Monday, the cowboy gave way to the statesman, hoping to avoid the instability that has marred recent Mexican presidential handovers.

''We awake to a different situation, with complete stability... the country is going ahead normally,'' said Fox, who also had kind words for both Zedillo and the defeated ruling party candidate, Francisco Labastida.

Fox, who begins his six-year term on Dec. 1, said he would choose his Cabinet secretaries over the coming two months and would include people from a variety of parties and geographic regions, as well as women.

Investors appeared to be pleased: Mexico's stock market closed up 6.1 percent and the Mexican peso rose sharply against the dollar.

The election was so stunning that Mexicans may not know what to expect. No one alive has seen a peaceful transfer of power between parties in Mexico: The PRI had governed since 1929, and before that, Mexicans endured a long series of rigged or violent changes of power by earlier regimes.

The PRI was often confused with Mexico itself, especially in rural areas, in part because it had a political monopoly on the colors of the flag and in part because for a long time there was no difference between the government and party.

Fox's National Action Party, founded in 1939, was considered a fringe party of the Catholic middle classes for its first half-century, electing its first governor only in 1989.

But with 93 percent of the vote counted from Sunday's election, Fox had 42.7 percent, Labastida of the PRI had 35.8 percent and Cuauhtemoc Cardenas of the Democratic Revolution Party 16.5 percent.

President Clinton called to congratulate Fox and issued a statement calling the elections a '' vivid testimony to the depth of the democratic commitment of the Mexican people.''

Former U.S. Secretary of State James Baker, an election observer, called it ''a truly historic sea change in the politics of Mexico.''

''It can't mean anything but good in terms of U.S. interests,'' Baker said in an interview. ''The United States is interested in promoting democracy around the world and this is the first peaceful transfer of power at the ballot box, in a closely contested election, in 71 years.''

In addition to the presidency, National Action won a near-majority in the Senate and the largest delegation in the lower house of Congress, though only slightly ahead of the PRI. National Action also wrested the governorship of Morelos state away from PRI and kept its hold on Fox's Guanajuato state. Democratic Revolution won the mayor's race in Mexico City.

Mexico was a largely rural society when the PRI was founded. The country's transformation to a nation of cities and industries has undermined the party's hold on a population that once depended on it for aid to make it from crop to crop, for favors in settling land disputes.

The PRI's dependence on the rural vote was never clearer: After mayors elected in several states take office, the one-time all-ruling party will not control any of Mexico's 12 largest cities. Ten of those will be held by National Action.

The defeat of the PRI will mean wrenching changes throughout Mexican society - and in Mexicans' view of their country.

Labor unions that for 65 years have been subservient to the government are suddenly independent. Farmers can no longer go to the PRI to solve their problems. An army of bureaucrats can no longer migrate between the PRI's massive headquarters in Mexico City and federal and state bureaucracies nationwide.

The biggest shock may be in rural areas where the identification between the PRI and power was closest - where Indian towns suffered ''centuries of brutal, colonial, undemocratic authoritarianism'' followed by decades of paternalism under the PRI, historian Lorenzo Meyer said in a recent interview.

''They have no experience in being citizens,'' Meyer said.

''There are some Mexicans... the most authentic Mexicans, who will have to see the body'' of the PRI before breaking free, Meyer said. ''It is almost like the Russians had to see the body of Stalin.''


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