Running to the left

Oaxaca City, Mexico

By Telis Demos, Fortune reporter

(Fortune Magazine) -- When Felipe Calderón was declared the winner of Mexico's presidential election, many believed that the conservative candidate's victory meant that Mexico had not been seized by the populist fervor that has sent other Latin American countries--including Bolivia and now Nicaragua--heading leftward. But on the eve of Calderón's Dec. 1 inauguration, Mexico is boiling with popular discontent that Calderón may be forced to appease.

It started in Oaxaca City in June, where a teachers' strike over low pay escalated into mass protests and culminated in guerrillas seizing the city's central plaza four months later. Protesters demanded the ouster of Oaxaca's state governor. Two days after a U.S. journalist and another man were shot--some say by local police--during a protest on Oct. 28, some 4,500 federal police were sent in.

Anxieties over the joblessness and government corruption that are fueling violence in Oaxaca, Mexico's poorest state, have resonated throughout Mexico. Groups sympathetic to Oaxaca's protesters set off a series of small bombs in Mexico City in early November, leading the head of Oaxaca's protests to describe recent months as the "beginning of a social upheaval."

Outgoing President Vicente Fox has promised to put an end to the crisis before leaving office at the end of November. Calderón says he wants it to "be resolved through institutions and in a legal manner." But with his political legitimacy already in question because of his razor-thin victory over leftist Andrés Manuel López Obrador, that may be a tall order.

Oaxaca's governor warns that police cannot keep the peace indefinitely, and Calderón might have to jettison his campaign agenda of lowering state spending in order to broker a peaceful end to the unrest.  Top of page