MEXICO CITY – President Vicente Fox (search) received a clear message from voters who handed his party crushing defeats in key midterm congressional and gubernatorial elections: It's time to replace promises with action.
In a television interview Monday, Fox said he was willing to forge a new relationship with the newly strengthened opposition in Congress, who stonewalled his major proposals during the first three years of his term. His success could have a major impact on whether his party can hold on to the presidency in 2006.
"Now begins the era of consensus, of accords," a chastened Fox said, adding that his administration would "redouble its efforts" in the future.
What Fox didn't make clear was how far he was willing to stray from the ambitious agenda of change he proposed with his historic defeat of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (search), or PRI, which had ruled Mexico for 71 years.
After his 2000 election, Fox promised euphoric voters millions of new jobs, a migration accord with the United States and major reforms in the labor, economic and energy sectors.
Most of those promises fell flat, victims in part of congressional infighting, an economic recession and the Sept. 11 (search) attacks that derailed the United States' attention from the needs of its southern neighbor.
In electing governors in six states and lawmakers to all 500 seats in Congress' lower house, voters made clear they didn't care what the reasons were. Others simply didn't care: Nearly 60 percent of eligible voters didn't cast a ballot.
"The congressional races were very much a resounding slap in the face to Fox," said George Grayson, a Mexico expert from The College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Va., who was visiting to observe the elections. "They told him: 'You promised change, and you didn't deliver."'
Fox's National Action Party was hoping to gain an edge in Congress, where no party has a majority. Instead, it lost seats while the PRI increased its presence, according to the Federal Electoral Institute, which released preliminary results Monday.
Perhaps the biggest gainer was the leftist Democratic Revolution Party, which appeared to substantially increase its number of seats in Congress, while nearly obliterating National Action in Mexico City elections. The victories strengthened the presidential aspirations of Democratic Revolution's standard-bearer, populist Mexico City Mayor Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador.
The PRI also defeated National Action in Nuevo Leon, capturing the governor's office in the wealthy, industrial border state, and the mayor's office in the capital, Monterrey. The defeats demonstrated business leaders' frustration with Fox's inability to pass reforms that would stimulate the economy.
National Action was able to hold on to Queretaro state, and win central San Luis Potosi from the PRI. But it was locked in tight races for the governorships in southern Campeche and northwestern Sonora.
Fox can bounce back, but observers say he will have to revamp his approach if he wants to be remembered for more than delivering empty promises and political gridlock -- and if he wants to improve his party's chances of holding on to the presidency in 2006.
The question is whether Fox -- who has failed to demonstrate a willingness or ability to negotiate with the opposition -- is able to make such changes. Fox recently told reporters he had no regrets, and said Monday he planned no major changes in his Cabinet.
But National Action president Luis Felipe Bravo told reporters Monday that "both in the government and in the party we have to get better focused and review where we have failed so we can correct it and serve Mexicans much better."
The key, said political analyst Leo Zuckermann, is that Fox "starts to substitute solid proposals for confrontation."
Fox could take a cue from former President Clinton -- who suffered a resounding defeat in the 1994 midterm elections when Republicans captured both the House and Senate, but turned his bad fortunes around with major Cabinet and policy changes.
Like Clinton, Fox should identify three or four priorities that his government might achieve in the new Congress, and abandon the rest, Zuckermann said.
The president also should curtail his near-daily appearances in the media, which have done nothing to improve his relationship with the public or to increase votes for his party, Zuckermann said.
Zuckermann also suggested the president move the spotlight away from first lady Marta Sahagun, who has been widely criticized for overstepping her bounds.
With their new post-election power -- and an eye on the presidency in 2006 -- PRI leaders might be eager to support moderate versions of some Fox proposals to show that the party can do more than simply play spoiler to the president, Grayson said. PRI governors could take a leading role in that effort, he said.
"They're on the front lines, and they want to deliver," he said. "They are extremely interested in seeing reforms that will help them attract investment and create jobs."
The PRI wants to prove that it can govern and make policy, something it never had to do during seven decades in power, when party leaders took their marching orders from a long line of PRI presidents, Grayson noted.
The PRI-dominated Senate may prove more difficult, however. And given that neither party has a solid majority in the House, the prospect of three more years of gridlock looms large for many.
"The presidency of Vicente Fox is over," political analyst Denise Dresser wrote in Reforma. "The president will continue to live in Los Pinos (the presidential residence), but he won't be orchestrating any changes from there. He'll leave his office like every other day, but he'll be a political corpse."