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Mexican president’s speech overshadowed by new powerful Congress

September 2, 1997

MEXICO CITY (AP) _ The opening of Mexico’s first opposition-led Congress in more than eight decades overshadowed President Ernesto Zedillo’s most important speech of the year and chipped away at the once-imperial office he holds.

The new Congress is expected to transform Mexican politics, forcing the president to negotiate with lawmakers who no longer automatically back his proposals and making the ruling party share space with the opposition.

``Today we witness, at a determining point in our history, the start of a new era in the political life of our beloved Mexican nation,″ declared Carlos Medina Placencia, the leader of the center-right National Action Party’s lower house delegation.

Zedillo spent a good chunk of his 90-minute state of the nation speech Monday night promising to work with the opposition Congress.

Lawmakers from Mexico’s four largest opposition parties and Zedillo’s Institutional Revolutionary Party, known as PRI, spoke briefly on the first day of their three-year term before the president took the podium.

``The vote of the people of Mexico has given this legislature a plurality,″ said Zedillo. ``I have full confidence that the executive and legislature will have a mature, constructive relationship.″

He capped the speech with a defense of his economic policies, warning that Mexico needs sustained growth of at least 5 percent a year following a severe economic crisis that gripped the first two years of his term.

But more important than what he said was the body to which he was speaking.

``There was not much new in the speech,″ said Armando Barrera, who listened to Zedillo on a radio at his newspaper stand in downtown Mexico City. ``What is new is the opposition Congress. Would God grant that they be strong and do well.″

Zedillo got his first taste of his new relationship with the Congress over the weekend, when PRI lawmakers threatened to boycott the session.

Opposition deputies gathered Saturday in congressional chambers, declared a quorum and named Porfirio Munoz Ledo, a fiery orator of the leftist Democratic Revolution Party, as the speaker of the lower house. As speaker, he gave the official response to the president’s address.

PRI deputies threatened to boycott and even talked of forming their own breakaway congress, a move that set Mexico teetering on political chaos. It was hard to take for a party that had held the presidency and a majority in both houses of Congress since it was founded in 1929.

Ultimately, after Zedillo appealed to the PRI lawmakers to relent, they agreed that it was not in the country’s interest to set up their own rival legislative body.

Munoz Ledo’s speech Monday night was the first time an opposition party member delivered the official legislative response to the president’s annual address.

Munoz Ledo said the new opposition majority was the result of ``persevering struggles and even sacrifices against absolute power, its arrogances and excesses.″

In past years, opposition deputies sometimes shouted challenges to the president from the floor, but they were generally drowned out by calls from the PRI majority.

The gathering Monday was actually much more dignified than past state of the nation speeches, which have featured hecklers, bedsheet banners hoisted for the benefit of television cameras _ even a lawmaker in a pig mask.

Still, some clashes are likely in the coming weeks as the strengthened opposition in the 500-seat lower house of Congress flexes its muscle and debate becomes more common in what was once a rubber-stamp legislature.

The Congress is likely to make the second half of Zedillo’s six-year term difficult _ attacking economic policies and scrutinizing budgets that once got little attention.

The PRI won only 39 percent of the vote in the July congressional elections. But because of rules giving a disproportionate number of seats to the top vote-getter, the party wound up with 48 percent of the seats in Congress.

The two leading opposition parties _ National Action and Democratic Revolution _ each won about 26 percent of the total vote.

Leading historian Enrique Krauze said the sober tone of Munoz Ledo’s speech and the event in general boded well for the new Congress.

``I think that this is one of those moments in which one can legitimately feel proud to be a Mexican,″ he said.

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