Edging to the Right

The apparent victory of Felipe Calderon, the candidate of incumbent President Vicente Fox’s PAN party in Mexico, is the latest in a series of defeats for the hard left in Latin American elections. It also means there will continue to be a trio of center-right North American governments.

Leftist Evo Morales, with help from Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, did win in Bolivia, but Chavez’s candidate lost in Peru, center-right incumbent Alvaro Uribe won re-election by a huge margin in Colombia and Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, former Mexico City mayor and candidate of the leftist PRD party, lost after leading in the polls for most of the past two years.

The cry has been going up that the "Washington consensus" favoring free trade and free markets is dead in the region. But that consensus is not threatened by responsible center-left presidents like Lula da Silva of Brazil and Michelle Bachelet of Chile. And the defeat of Lopez Obrador, who called for renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement, shows it’s still alive in Mexico.

That doesn’t mean Calderon can solve all of Mexico’s problems. His PAN will be the largest party in the Congreso, but without a majority in either house. For one thing, oil production will most likely continue to lag if PRI, the ruling party from 1929 to 2000, keeps joining PRD in resisting any change in the monopoly status of government-owned Pemex. Government corruption and urban crime will probably persist. But Mexico’s economy, in tandem with ours thanks to NAFTA, is now growing robustly, inflation is low, and there has been no peso devaluation since 1994. And in the Congreso, legislators may be developing the knack of compromise and negotiation that was never necessary when they were just rubber stamps for PRI presidents.

There is also a fascinating symmetry in the recent election results in the three NAFTA nations: Mexico, Canada and the United States. All chose center-right governments by narrow margins, installed by minorities of the voters. Calderon’s 35.9 percent of the vote in a three-party system is eerily similar to the 36.3 percent won by Stephen Harper’s Conservative Party in Canada’s four-party system. We all know about Bush’s two elections.
All three leaders have been opposed vociferously, indeed often considered illegitimate, by the metropolitan elites of New York, Toronto and Mexico City. All three beat parties that claimed only they had national reach — the Democrats here, the Liberals in Canada and PRI in Mexico — but that were tarred with scandal when they were voted out of office.

All three won thanks to huge margins in economically vibrant hinterlands — George W. Bush’s Texas, Stephen Harper’s Alberta, Vicente Fox’s Guanajuato. Calderon carried the Mexican states north of metro Mexico City by 47 percent to 22 percent over Lopez Obrador. These are the states where you find giant new factories, glistening shopping malls, rising office buildings, new middle-class subdivisions, Wal-Marts and freshly paved highways. This is the Mexico that NAFTA has brought into being.

Just as Bush carried most of our fastest-growing states and Harper’s Conservatives carried Canada’s fastest-growing province, so Mexico’s northern states, which produced more than half the nation’s population growth from 2000 to 2005, voted PAN.

These center-right parties all stand for change — change in the sense of allowing a vibrant private sector to grow and alter our ways of living and making a living. Their opponents tend to stand against change, for the vested interests of public-sector unions, for (in Canada and Mexico) the subsidy of anti-American metropolitan elites.

Some years ago, I predicted that NAFTA would produce a Texafication of North America. NAFTA was in large part a Texas project, pushed forward by President George H.W. Bush and shepherded to ratification here by Treasury Secretary Lloyd Bentsen, who grew up in the Lower Rio Grande Valley, and in Mexico by President Carlos Salinas, who grew up in nearby Monterrey.

Since 1993, the United States, Canada and Mexico have all become more like Texas, as people move away from high-tax and slow-growth places. Bush in 2000 and Harper and Calderon in 2006 would not have won on the demographics of the 1980s. But they won on the demographics of today — though, let’s remember, by narrow margins.