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Inside the PAN machine: Calderon consolidates power as Creel suffers blow to presidential dream.

As soon as the results of the vote were announced, the spontaneous cheers of "Felipe! Felipe!" punctuated the applause.

Members of the National Action Party (PAN) were doing more than showing their support for Energy Secretary Felipe Calderon. They were acknowledging that the National Assembly's decision to limit the election of the presidential candidate to party members was a victory for him--and a defeat for Interior Secretary Santiago Creel, who has a higher profile among the population at large and wanted an election open to all registered voters for the right to represent the PAN in 2006.

"Calderon was the big winner. And he got a lot of his allies and proteges onto the national council," said Federico Estevez, a political science professor at the Autonomous Technological Institute of Mexico (ITAM), a private university.

The PAN convention, which was held in Queretaro from April 30 to May 2, may come to be seen as the moment when the presidential hopes of Creel and First Lady Martha Sahagun died, although both could still capitalize on their continuing popularity with voters. The loudest cheers were for familiar party figures like Carlos Medina and Diego Fernandez de Cevallos. Creel made the mistake of making his grand entrance at Diego's side.

For all the negative publicity surrounding his use of public office to attract clients to his law firm, Fernandez de Cevallos is still an icon of the wilderness years opposing the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). He has also made the role of attack dog his own, regularly going up against opponents with his outspoken style.

It is difficult to measure the candidates' internal support at the moment. Some analysts put Calderon's support as high as 35% inside the party, but others point to polls showing Creel is in the lead. The consensus, though, is that Creel doesn't have an overall majority and is vulnerable should other party leaders unite behind a single candidate.

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CORRIDOR OF POWER

Another measurement of popularity is the national council, where Calderon had the most success of all the leaders in getting his people voted onto the 300-strong body that sets policy. It is estimated as much as a third of the council is loyal to him. Because that election is confusing with so many candidates to choose from, most party heavyweights

quietly circulate a list of their preferences. And there were even some fake lists going around just to prove no party is completely free of shenanigans.

What it all shows is that the phony war is becoming more real as President Fox is increasingly a lame duck. And this makes for a long, and colorful, presidential campaign.

However, the most popular candidate in the party may not be the one with the best chance of winning, which could affect the primary next year. Thanks to his high-profile. headline-grabbing job, Creel is ahead of his party rivals in the polls. And the party's secretary general sounded this warning.

"It isn't necessarily the one who is loved, admired, cheered and applauded inside the party who will be accepted by society," said Manuel Espino.

MOVEMENT IN OTHER PARTIES

The PRI and the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) are also in full electoral swing, although with fewer tangible results so far.

The PRD had its own national congress earlier this year. It was a rambunctious affair that ended in the resignation of Cuauhtemoc Cardenas from the council, clearing the way for the obvious candidate. Mexico City Mayor Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador. Cardenas has been the party's moral leader and its presidential candidate in every election since 1988.

The PRI's battle is still behind closed doors with Roberto Madrazo, the party president, as the early favorite. The PAN's more open battle is more entertaining. The debate at the national conference, held at the Josefa Ortiz de Dominguez Auditorium in Queretaro, was fierce, and all the leading candidates sent their men into the fray.

VALUE OF A VOTE

The decision to include all party members, not just militant activists, in the vote was perhaps to be expected. There will still be 1.2 million voters nationwide, but activist resentment at Fox's decision to include many outsiders in his Cabinet made any further opening unlikely.

Economy Secretary Fernando Canales, an example of a Cabinet member with weak party credentials, effectively ended any chance of a national ballot with his speech in favor of one. He said such an election was necessary and democratic and would boost the chances in the presidential campaign itself of the winning candidate. His own modest hopes of the candidacy, according to observers, died on the spot.

He is seen as the man whose poor performance as governor of Nuevo Leon handed that state back to the PRI, and the party didn't let him forget it with shouts of "That's why we lost Nuevo Leon."

The other speaker in favor of the proposal was Rogelio Sada, another Monterrey businessman turned politician. German Martinez, the leader of the PAN in Congress and a Calderon supporter, turned back the arguments by pointing out who would be allowed to vote in an open contest.

"One vote from Luis H. Alvarez (the grand old man of the PAN) should not be worth the same as a vote from Roberto Madrazo. A vote from Luis Felipe Bravo Mena (the party president) should not be worth the same as a vote from Carlos Salinas de Gortari," he shouted as 3,500 party faithful screamed their agreement.

The party may come to regret its decision to close off the election as recent experience has shown an open primary provides advantages like more media exposure, enabling voters to become more familiar with the candidate. "Open primaries for governors' races have tended to give PRI candidates an advantage," said Estevez.

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And the process may not lead to the candidate with the best chance of winning. While Creel is a statesman-like figure, helped by his job, Calderon suffers from being seen as too caustic and aggressive and is less charming to the voters. Carlos Medina, the other strong candidate, is also more charismatic with the media and voters than Calderon.

PUSHING A PLATFORM

Another event that was mostly missed by the media was Calderon's coup of getting the party to approve a new long-term political platform that he wrote himself. He introduced the concept of sustainable human development, which is another way of describing the ongoing efforts to modernize Mexico. But the party realized it can no longer wrap itself in the flag of democracy and opposition, which it has been wearing for decades.

Being the author of the document that may guide PAN policies for the next 15-25 years cements his position as the party's moral leader and increases his authority. It was also a bold move, as rejection would have lessened his influence. "It's clear he went way out on a limb and built a fair consensus in setting the main points of the party platform," said Estevez.

Still, these are the early skirmishes and with more than two years before the election much can happen. More scandals like the recent spate of videos showing businessmen paying off Mexico City politicians and gambling away the proceeds in Las Vegas could sink any of the candidates.

The PAN is also likely to have a bad year electorally, losing the mayorship of Merida, according to the most recent polls. And disaffection with the government, which has seen its reform initiatives stalled in Congress, will also work against the eventual candidate. And, of course, the PAN candidate at the moment looks like having the worst chance of getting elected, according to opinion polls. So for the winner, it may be a pyrrhic victory at best.

And although Calderon may feel like he could win the nomination, especially if he gets backing from other major party figures he may also, at 42, feel time is on his side.

"Why go down in flames when you can wait?" said Estevez.

John Moody is a former reporter for Bloomberg News who has covered political and financial news in Mexico for nearly a decade.
COPYRIGHT 2004 American Chamber of Commerce of Mexico A.C.
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Title Annotation:National Action Party
Author:Moody, John
Publication:Business Mexico
Geographic Code:1MEX
Date:Jun 1, 2004
Words:1354
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