VICENTE FOX exits the stage today in Mexico, handing over the presidency to 44-year-old Felipe Calderon. The two men hail from the same conservative party (the National Action Party, or PAN), but Calderon's inauguration takes place against a backdrop radically different from Fox's swearing-in six years ago. Calderon seems immeasurably weaker than Fox was when he vanquished the long-dominant Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, in 2000. But that may be as much an opportunity as a hindrance.
Fox, though still personally popular, has been an ineffective, lame-duck president for so long it is easy to forget his rock-star status -- not just at home but around the globe -- on first taking office. Expectations in Mexico were so high then that even leftist intellectuals flocked to his side.
His successor takes office under far less auspicious circumstances. Indeed, there is some question about whether he will be able to be sworn in as customary in the Congress. Leftist legislators still grousing (absurdly) that fraud accounts for Calderon's narrow victory at the polls are vowing to block the path to the podium.
Calderon has nowhere to go but up, just as Fox had nowhere to go but down. There is a recent precedent in Mexico of a president who needed to legitimize himself in office -- Carlos Salinas de Gortari -- taking bold risks. Salinas, a member of the PRI, shocked Mexico by taking on the powerful oil workers' union and making peace with the Roman Catholic Church.
Calderon could show his boldness by taking on his backers in the business community. There has been a lot of nonsensical talk since the July 2 election about the need for the new president to borrow some of the ideas of Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, the leftist former mayor of Mexico City who lost the election by less than a percentage point. That would be a mistake.
Mexico needs to spend more on welfare programs, sure, but overall it needs freer markets, not a return to the days of heavy-handed government control of the economy (Lopez Obrador's vision). And in order to create more economic freedom and stimulate growth, Calderon needs to break up the monopolies and duopolies that enrich the elites (the Telmex behemoth in telecommunications is Exhibit A) and act as a brake on growth.
Calderon will have to become an avid trust-buster if he is to succeed in office. He'd be taking on powerful interests, but the move could also help him broaden his base of support. A technocratic political insider who surrounds himself with hard-core conservative advisors, Calderon has plenty of other challenges, including rising drug-trafficking violence nationwide. But if he makes progress in standing up to big business and in restoring the rule of law, he could someday attain rock-star status of his own.