MEXICO CITY – Expectations were high when a maverick businessman favoring cowboy boots and plain talk won the presidency in 2000, defeating the party that had governed Mexico for 71 consecutive years.
Mexicans hoped that their country would take a new course under Vicente Fox's center-right National Action Party, or PAN, with government corruption uprooted, the police and justice systems strengthened and poverty curtailed.
But they have been disappointed by drug trafficking violence, and the failure to prosecute government corruption or correct judicial inefficiency under the PAN's leadership, first under Fox and then under current President Felipe Calderon, who barely squeaked by in a contested 2006 election. Despite a more open economy and a bigger middle class, more than half of the nation's 120 million people still live in poverty.
Amid the dashed hopes of many Mexicans, the PAN is battling to retain the presidency in July 1 balloting as the formerly entrenched Institutional Revolutionary Party known as the PRI seems poised for a comeback.
"When I voted for Fox and for Calderon I expected change," said Homero Aridjis, a Mexican poet, diplomat and environmentalist. "We thought corruption was going to end, that the country would be well-governed but now we see with disappointment that the lack of justice continues, the corruption we knew continues, and now we can add incompetence in governing to that."
Since its 1939 founding, the pro-business PAN has billed itself as an anti-corruption crusader that made pinpointing the abuses of PRI governments its main mission. Fox was elected largely because he promised to break with the past and vowed to crush the corrupt "black snakes" and "toads" of the old regime.
The night Fox was declared the winner, thousands of ecstatic Mexicans donning masks of the mustached leader and waving the country's red, white and green flag rushed to celebrate beneath the gilded angel of Mexico City's Independence monument. A coffin decorated with the PRI logo was passed among the crowd. Many equated the PAN's victory to the fall of the Berlin Wall.
But the euphoria quickly wore off.
Fox "marketed democracy to the Mexican people and sold it as a panacea for all of their individual, personal concerns," said David A. Shirk, director of the University of San Diego Trans-Border Institute and author of a book about the PAN. "The expectations that people had were the expectations that Fox set for himself, and they were frankly unrealistic."
Once president, Fox made accountability for the PRI's past crimes and the fight against corruption the centerpieces of his administration but achieved little in both efforts.
In one of the most high profile cases of government corruption gone unpunished by the Fox administration, a former union leader of the state-owned Petroleos Mexicanos company, known as Pemex, was accused of diverting as much as US$170 million in state oil funds to the 2000 presidential campaign of the PRI candidate, Francisco Labastida. The party was fined $1 billion pesos (about $90 million dollars) but no one was criminally prosecuted in the case dubbed "Pemexgate."
The former rancher and governor of the central state of Guanajuato also had little success prosecuting former PRI officials accused of oppressing dissent, or strengthening the nation's law enforcement.
Faced with growing drug trafficking violence, Fox created the Federal Agency of Investigation, or AFI, shortly after taking office to replace the notoriously corrupt and inept Federal Judicial Police. The AFI was disbanded in 2009 after one-fifth of its agents were suspected of cooperating with drug cartels.
Once seen as the hope for change, Fox is now often remembered for his quips and blunders, including his declaration that he would revive the countryside and solve a guerrilla rebellion "in 15 minutes."
Experts say PAN administrations have been unsuccessful because Fox and Calderon have faced stiff opposition in Congress, where many of their proposed reforms were diluted or killed.
Others blame corruption for the party's woes.
"The problem with the PAN is that it got into power and it started desperately stealing, and they stuffed themselves as if they were dying of hunger," said Manuel Clouthier Carrillo, a former PAN congressman whose father, Manuel Clouthier del Rincon, was among the party's founders.
Many PAN members are enraged that the PAN mayor of Monterrey, Fernando Larrazabal, wasn't kicked out of the party after a video showed his brother receiving wads of cash inside a Monterrey casino, whose owner claimed he was being extorted. Instead, the party put him on a list of candidates for seats in the lower house of Congress awarded via proportional representation.
"Instead of the PAN cleaning up the system, the system corrupted the PAN," said Clouthier, who wants to run for the presidency as an independent. "It's incredible that after two terms of a PAN federal government, there hasn't been a single crusade against corruption."
Mexicans disappointed with the PAN now seem ready to return the PRI to the presidency despite its reputation as a corrupt party that retained power through fraud, political clientelism and by crushing dissent.
The conservative party is gambling that this country known for machismo is ready to be led by a woman and it picked Josefina Vazquez Mota, a 51-year-old economist and devout Roman Catholic as its presidential candidate.
Vazquez Mota, a mother of three, has presented a warm, affable image while pledging to improve public education and to make Mexico safer by continuing Calderon's plan to clean up police departments.
She has declared her one-word campaign slogan to be "Diferente," or "Different," in an apparent effort to distance herself from Calderon, whose approval rating has been dropping.
In launching her campaign last week, Vazquez Mota said she would look to build consensus among parties when governing unlike Calderon, whose cabinet is comprised of PAN allies.
But the former education minister and congresswoman faces an uphill battle against former Mexico State governor and PRI candidate Enrique Pena Nieto, who leads in recent polls.
A poll by the Reforma daily newspaper published Wednesday showed Pena Nieto with a 13-point lead over Vazquez Mota.
About 45 percent of likely voters surveyed said they planned to vote for Pena Nieto. Vazquez Mota earned 32 percent of their support. Andres Manual Lopez Obrado of the leftist Democratic Revolution Party trails in third with 22 percent.
The poll, conducted by the newspaper surveyed 1,343 Mexicans between March 22 and 26. It had a sampling error margin of 2.7 percentage points.
Despite losing the presidency, the PRI has continued to govern most of Mexico's 32 states. It currently holds 20 governorships.
The PAN, long an elitist party of businessmen and other upper and middle-class, religious members, now also includes many working class and other people who grew disenchanted with the PRI. But Shirk said it never created the kind of mass-based system that kept the PRI in power for seven decades.
One of the PAN's big mistakes was not building a stronger party base for itself to replace the electoral machinery that the PRI had developed over many, many years," Shirk said. "The PAN had a very weak mass base and without that kind of a strong electoral connection to constituency the PAN was almost a virtual party."
The PAN, of course, enjoyed some successes.
Fox passed a historic freedom of information law allowing for a freedom of the press that hadn't been seen before in Mexico. The Mexican news media has used the newfound freedom to expose corruption scandals in every major party, airing videos of politicians stuffing a suitcase with cash, asking for bribes and gambling away public funds in casinos.
Both Fox and Calderon were also able to maintain a stable economy despite a global financial crisis.
The Mexican economy grew by more than 5 percent in 2010 after a sharp recession in 2009 during the global economic crisis. Inflation and public sector deficits are under control, and public debt is improved. However, a stable economy hasn't translated into better living conditions for the more than 62 million Mexicans living in poverty.
PAN president Gustavo Madero didn't respond to requests for an interview by The Associated Press. But late last month, Calderon defended his administration saying one of his biggest successes was capturing or killing 22 of the country's most wanted drug traffickers.
The main question for Mexicans now is which candidate in the July 1 presidential contest can end the drug violence that has left more than 47,000 people dead since 2006 despite a crackdown on drug traffickers by Calderon's government.
Although most of the bloodshed is among the cartels, Calderon detractors criticize him for stirring up a hornet's nest by going after all the cartels at once, precipitating more bloodshed.
"Throughout my life, we have had devaluations, capital flight, political assassinations, armed uprisings, but for the first time I'm seeing so much violence," Aridjis said. "We're at a crossroads and what no one seems to know is how Mexico will regain the peace we once had."