The PRI had hoped to win a majority in the summer’s elections, but it fell short by 11 in the 500-member Chamber of Deputies and by four in the 128-member Senate. In any case, some of the most important reforms will need changes to the constitution, which require a two-thirds majority in Congress.
However, Mr Pena has reason to be optimistic. The opposition PAN shares much of Mr Pena’s agenda, and together the two parties have a two-thirds majority in both houses of Congress. A new power to fast-track two bills per congressional session will help. A lot will depend on who ends up leading the PAN, which is restive and rudderless after finishing third in the presidential election. The handover period between July’s election and December’s inauguration has been a model of presidential co-operation. Mr Calderon’s crackdown on Mexico’s vindictive criminals has given him a personal reason to stay on good terms with the new government, to make sure of the protection he and his family will need when he leaves office.
Fighting on two fronts
Mr Pena’s main problem in Congress may well be his own party. As this special report went to press Congress was about to pass a labour-law reform, which among other things would make hiring and firing easier. But linked measures to make Mexico’s over-mighty unions more transparent and democratic were voted down by congressmen from Mr Pena’s own PRI, which has strong ties to unions. If the unions cannot be tamed, Mr Pena’s other reforms—to open up the monopolised energy sector and overhaul the tax system—may be similarly diluted.
The runner-up in the election was the left-winger Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, known as AMLO, who came a very close second to Mr Calderon in 2006 but lost to Mr Pena by 6.8%. After both defeats he claimed fraud. The evidence is thin. The left has about a quarter of the seats in Congress, but many of its congressmen have little patience with AMLO, whose magnetic personality repels as many voters as it attracts.
The government may also face opposition outside Congress. Though a majority of the political class now seems to be convinced of the need for economic reforms along the lines that Mr Pena proposes, the same may not yet be true on the street, in the public universities or in much of the press. “Mexico is a country where doctrine and principle matter more than practical considerations and results,” says Enrique Krauze, a historian. The state-run oil monopoly is the sort of sacred cow that could emit a deafening, destabilising moo if Mr Pena tried to tether it. Mexico City already sees an average of 14 protests a day.
The internet is making politics more unpredictable. During the election campaign Mr Pena paid a disastrous visit to a university and fled after being heckled. This gave rise to an anti-Pena student movement calling itself YoSoy132, or “I am the 132nd” (the initial protest was led by 131 students). It is now capable of summoning large crowds via Twitter and Facebook to march against Mr Pena (and often, it seems, for AMLO). During Mexico’s independence celebrations on September 16th anonymous hackers took down several government websites.
So it will not be an easy ride. Mr Krauze remembers that the optimism when the North American Free-Trade Agreement (NAFTA) came into force in 1994 was quickly punctured by the Zapatista uprising in Mexico’s south on New Year’s Day. “We thought we were there in the first world, on the final lap of our historic marathon. Then on January 1st we woke up to the astonishing news of a rebellion in Chiapas,” he says.
Mexico has form in turning triumph to disaster, and could yet do so again. Its economy remains dependent on the fortunes of the United States, and financial crises in Europe make investors jittery. Promised reforms will depend on persuading entrenched interests to accept them. Corruption and bad government, especially at the local level, may cause good initiatives to fall at the last hurdle. And the drug war is by no means over. But Mexico deserves a fresh look—not least because its economy is revving up, as the next article explains.