Felipe Calderón (born 1962), candidate of the conservative Partido Acción Nacional (National Action Party, known by the acronym PAN), was elected president of Mexico in July of 2006, after a bitter campaign whose almost-deadlocked result was contested and protested for months after the vote took place. At 44, Calderón was one of the youngest presidents in Mexican history.
Supporters of Calderón's chief rival, leftist Mexico City mayor Andrés Manuel López Obrador, painted Calderón as the candidate of Mexico's corporate elites and as a child of privilege out of touch with the aspirations of the country's poor. Calderón responded that the free market economic policies he proposed would be the most effective in alleviating poverty. Whatever the merits of each position in the economic debate, the portrayal of Calderón as a scion of elite power was not entirely accurate. For he was a member of a political family that had helped bring modern democracy itself to Mexico.
Born into Politically Active Family
Felipe de Jesús Calderón Hinojosa was born in Morelia, the capital of the Mexican state of Michoacán, on August 18, 1962. His father, Luis Calderón Vega, was a key backer of the PAN in the early days after its formation in 1939. "His role was important because he was a student activist, a gentleman, a novelist, a historian, a political crusader, and a devout Christian," wrote historian Donald J. Mabry in his article "Father of a Mexican President: Luis Calderón Vega." He later became the PAN's official historian. At the time of the PAN's founding, and for many years afterward, Mexico was under the virtual one-party rule of the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI), descended from some of the groups that had overthrown Mexico's dictatorship in the 1910s and founded the modern Mexican state. The elder Calderón was one of the activists who first began to chip away at the PRI's influence, running hopelessly outgunned candidates in local elections and laying the ideological foundations to attract the next generation of voters. PAN victories were few in the early years, but, party member Luis Meija Guzmán told Jeremy Schwartz of the Austin American-Statesman, "Even after they lost, they would continue fighting, until little by little they moved up the ladder." When Calderón was born, his parents were both working on a gubernatorial campaign in Michoacán. The family lived in a modest house and drove used cars.
The political atmosphere rubbed off. Calderón passed out political leaflets and grew up with the sound of campaigns in his ears. His local education occurred in a school run by the Catholic Marist Order, which he attended on a scholarship. When Calderón was 12, a teacher had his class recite their career plans. "We all said normal jobs, but Felipe surprised us all," classmate Alma Delia Álvarez Zamudio told Marc Lacey of the New York Times. "He said it like he knew it was going to happen. He said, 'presidente de la república'"—president of the republic. Calderón was a serious student, not just dreaming of a political career but aiming toward it. Three of his four siblings also entered politics.
The political philosophy into which the young Calderón grew cannot be easily classified according to the modern standards of conservative or liberal. The PAN was, and remains, closely identified with the Catholic Church, whose influence the PRI had historically sought to circumscribe through the maintenance of a strong separation between church and state. Calderón's stances on social issues such as abortion (which is legal in Mexico only in cases of rape or danger to the mother's life) and homosexuality would line up with the PAN's consistently traditionalist and conservative outlook. On economic questions, however, Luis Calderón Vega was influenced by Catholic teachings on social justice, rejecting both Marxism and contemporary capitalist thought. He believed that wealth should be shared across the levels of society, and that, in Mabry's words, "each human existed within a larger social context, never in isolation." In 1981 he left the party he had helped build, believing that it had shifted too far to the right.
Felipe Calderón and his siblings grew up more conservative than their father, emphasizing individualist and entrepreneurial philosophies. In Mabry's words, Calderón "believed that the best public policy was to take care of the rich because wealth trickles down and the government should enforce conservative and reactionary Catholicism." On the campaign trail, however, Calderón affirmed his support for Mexico's traditional separation of church and state. "I'm a bad Catholic," he was quoted as saying by Dudley Althaus of the Houston Chronicle. "I appreciate the values my parents instilled in me, but for me religion and politics are completely distinct things. In Mexico there should be a secular government that respects without discrimination all religions."
Earned Law and Economics Degrees
After leaving Morelia, Calderón pursued a rigorous educational course that would equip him either for a career in politics or one at the top of Mexico's corporate world. He received his bachelor's degree in law from the Escuela Libre de Derecho (Free Law School), a private college in Mexico City, and went on for a master's degree in economics from the Instituto Tecnológico Autónomo de México (Autonomous Technology University of Mexico, or ITAM), also located in the capital. He went on to earn a second master's degree, this one in public administration, from Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government in Massachusetts in 1999.
By that time Calderón's political career was already well underway. He entered politics at the age of 26, with a successful run for Mexico City's municipal assembly in 1988. Three years later he won a seat in Mexico's Congress. These campaigns had significance for Calderón on a personal level: he met Congresswoman and fellow PAN activist Margarita Zavala and proposed to her during a 1994 campaign swing. She accepted, and the couple have raised three children in their Mexico City home. In 1995 Calderón returned to Michoacán to run for the state governorship under the PAN banner, but lost.
His loss was no surprise, for at that point the PAN and the leftist Partido de Revolución Democrática (Party of Democratic Revolution, or PRD) had just began to crack the PRI's stranglehold on Mexico's federal and regional offices. For decades PAN organizers (Calderón among them—he took his first party post at 26, as head of its youth wing) had tried to ensure open elections with a level playing field free of the often corrupt influence of the PRI and its huge patronage machine; Calderón himself rounded up neighborhood children to act as poll watchers. In the late 1990s, however, the PRI's hold on power began to crack as several state governorships fell to the PAN. Calderón, meanwhile, was rising through the party ranks, having become its secretary-general in 1993 and party president from 1996 through 1999.
When the PAN's Vicente Fox was elected to the presidency in 2000, becoming the first Mexican president in 71 years who was not a member of the PRI, Calderón ascended to the inner circle of power in Mexican politics. He was rewarded for his long years of work in the political trenches with the post of director of the Banco Nacional de Obras y Servicios Públicos (National Bank of Public Works and Services, known as Banobras), a government-owned bank that financed development projects. In 2002 he became energy secretary in the Fox administration, overseeing the Mexican federal government's vast energy infrastructure. During the 2006 presidential campaign, Calderón's opponents charged that he had used the post to direct contracts toward a company owned by his brother-in-law—a charge that Calderón, who had cultivated a clean-government image, strenuously denied.
Defeated PAN Rival for Nomination
Calderón's own political ambitions were clear, and in 2004 he resigned his post as energy secretary in order to enter the campaign to succeed Fox as president. In order to secure the party's nomination he had to get by Fox's first choice, Santiago Creel. Calderón's deep roots in the PAN organization proved decisive in primaries open to PAN members only, however, and he was nominated to face López Obrador and PRI candidate Roberto Madrazo in the 2006 election.
The race quickly turned into a two-man contest between López Obrador and Calderón, who campaigned on a platform of free trade and a flat tax structure that, he contended, would stimulate investment. For much of the campaign, López Obrador led in the polls. From Calderón's point of view, the problem was what some observers considered his lack of charisma in the new rough-and-tumble world of Mexican campaigning. "Bespectacled, short, and balding, Calderón seems more a bookkeeper than a barnburner," Althaus wrote. Calderón suffered through an awkward public appearance where he was barely visible behind the wheel of a truck used as a campaign prop. His speeches, noted James C. McKinley of the New York Times, "have all the dynamics of a NASCAR race, starting loud and getting louder." López Obrador, by contrast, was a natural orator.
The dynamics of the race shifted when Calderón began running negative advertising that called López Obrador "a danger to Mexico" (according to the British Broadcasting Corporation) and likened his leftist rival to Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez. Mexico's electoral commission ordered the suspension of the ads, which were widely seen as unfair; López Obrador's fiscal management of the nation's largest city had revealed few grounds for scare attacks. But the ads had their desired effect. Calderón filled out his conservative message with tough anticrime proposals including a unified federal police force to replace Mexico's patchwork of troubled regional authorities. But he also sought to emphasize his moderate credentials. The title of his book El hijo desobediente (The Disobedient Son), issued during the campaign, referred not only to his differences of attitude with his father, but also his independence from Fox, often viewed as having been unable to deliver on his campaign promises.
On July 2, 2006, Calderón took 35.89 percent of the vote to López Obrador's 35.31 percent. The result was immediately challenged, both within Mexico's election certification apparatus and in the streets, where López Obrador's supporters launched a semi-permanent protest encampment in the center of Mexico City. A partial recount did little to change Calderón's margin of victory, and after a hot debate that included a walkout by opposition lawmakers prior to President Fox's annual Informe or state-of-the-union address, Calderón was certified as the winner on September 5, 2006, for a six-year term running until 2012.
Calderón immediately offered an olive branch to his opponents, whose continuing protests threatened Mexico's political stability. Noting that the PAN was still a minority party in Mexico's legislature, he told McKinley that "If you don't have a majority, you have to construct it." He pledged to continue Fox's efforts to oppose the strong immigration restrictions under consideration in the United States, and he expressed a willingness to include members of parties other than the PAN in his cabinet. Beyond specific policy decisions, Mexico's immediate future seemed likely to be influenced by the developing personality of its leader, who embodied some of the country's old and conflicting impulses. "There is an element in his persona that is rigid, belligerent, vertical, almost authoritarian," newspaper editor and Calderón adviser Jorge Zepeda Patterson told Schwartz. "But he has tried to work on those defects."
Austin American-Statesman (Austin, Texas), September 9, 2006.
Dallas Morning News, March 8, 2006.
Financial Times (London, England), June 20, 2006.
Houston Chronicle, February 13, 2006.
New York Times, January 26, 2006; September 6, 2006.
Time, September 11, 2006.
Mabry, Donald J., "Father of a Mexican President: Luis Calderón Vega," http://www.historicaltextarchive.com/sections.pho?op=viewarticle&artid=759 (October 2, 2006).
"Profiles: Mexico presidential candidates," British Broadcasting System, http://www.news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/americas/5114388.stm (October 2, 2006).