Many Feel Mexican President Vicente Fox Missed Golden Opportunity

Six years after his astonishing victory ended 71 years of one-party rule, many people see Vicente Fox as the president who squandered a golden opportunity to turn Mexico around.

While he pushed a freedom-of-information law through Congress and reinforced the democratic process, Fox failed to create the millions of jobs he promised or to secure the U.S. immigration reform he longed to achieve.

On Friday, Fox was mourning the death of his mother, Mercedes Quesada de Fox, in the village where the churchgoing matriarch held the family together. But by Sunday — his 64th birthday and six years to the day after his historic election — Fox planned to be back in Mexico City to vote in the election to replace him.

CountryWatch: Mexico

Fox steps down Dec. 1, constitutionally barred from seeking re-election and leaving behind as his legacy his surprising rise to power. Most Mexicans are hard-pressed to name his achievements as president.

"He did something, right?" said Emilia Santiago, a 40-year-old maid. "I just can't think of what it was."

Santiago said Fox, who was a Coca-Cola executive before becoming a politician, didn't deliver on the promises of sweeping change that persuaded millions of voters — including herself — to elect him.

She and her husband still rise before dawn, spend about a quarter of their income — and several hours of each day — commuting, returning home shortly before midnight. Some days, Santiago doesn't have money for breakfast.

"I go to work with an empty stomach," she said. "Sometimes, I feel dizzy. How am I supposed to work?"

Santiago wasn't sure which candidate to support this year. She was deciding between Felipe Calderon of Fox's conservative National Action Party, who advocates building on the president's fiscally conservative platform; former Mexico City Mayor Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador of the leftist Democratic Revolution Party, who pledges to govern for the poor; and Roberto Madrazo of the long-ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, who says he is a moderate option between the "radical left and intolerant right."

The rest of Mexico is also torn, with polls showing Calderon and Lopez Obrador running about even.

Some of the indecision is due to mixed feelings about Fox. His approval ratings are high — 65 percent, the same as at the start of his presidency.

But while most Mexicans agree Fox was a better option than the 71 years of authoritarian rule under the PRI, they are disappointed he didn't do more to improve their lives. If he could bring down the PRI, they argue, he could do anything.

Some acknowledge Fox was limited by a hostile Congress and an inefficient, corrupt judicial system that he tried — and failed — to overhaul. Others say he didn't work hard enough to build support for his goals.

Porfirio Munoz Ledo, a key adviser to Fox's campaign who now works for Lopez Obrador, says Fox wasn't forceful enough.

"Vicente didn't take office as the man of change, but as the flip-flop man," he said.

The president turned down repeated requests for an interview for this article as he withdrew from the public eye after widespread criticism that his public comments were interfering with the campaign. One of his last public acts before Sunday's election was to order his administration to guarantee a clean and safe vote.

He will spend his last five months in office pushing the United States to allow more Mexicans to work legally north of the border and overseeing a recent economic spurt. He and his wife, Marta Sahagun, plan to retire to his ranch near his late mother's home after leaving office.

Already, Fox's daily activities are largely relegated to the back pages of newspapers, shoved aside by headlines on the campaign. With a new president-elect, it will be even harder to get the nation's attention.

Fox often uses his speeches to tout Mexico's building boom, low-interest loans and economic stability. "We have left behind the eras of crashes and devaluations, of anxiety and unrest," he said Monday.

Armand Peschard-Sverdrup, a Mexico expert with the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, said Fox's accomplishments — overseeing a peaceful transition from the PRI and strengthening the separation of powers — are important, but not vote winners.

"It ultimately results in better government, but it's not a tangible benefit that people can feel or see in their everyday life," he said.

Santiago hasn't seen much of a change, and said many of her neighbors in the Mexico City slum where she lives are even worse off. And even after years of disappointment, she still hopes for a new Mexico.

"Not for me, but for everyone else, the poorest," she said. "They really need a change."