MEXICO CITY— Mexican Senate committees on Tuesday passed an electoral reform demanded by the opposition, taking Congress a step closer to a bill to open up the oil and gas industry at the center of President Enrique Pena Nieto's economic agenda.
The Senate committees worked through reservations to the electoral bill on Monday night and gave it full approval early on Tuesday, passing it to the floor of the upper chamber.
The electoral reform, which opposition conservatives had made a condition of their backing for the energy bill, would allow lawmakers to serve consecutive terms in office.
The reform also sets out rules for coalition governments and aims to strengthen Congress at the expense of the president.
The last major hurdle to Pena Nieto's energy reform, the bill will move to the lower house once the Senate gives its approval. That is expected to take place later on Tuesday.
Movement on the electoral plan comes after Mexico's main leftist party pulled out of a political pact that Pena Nieto's ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) forged a year ago with opposition leaders to push through economic reforms.
To reverse almost a decade of declining crude output, Pena Nieto wants to open up the state-controlled oil sector to allow private investors to team up with oil monopoly Pemex and share in profits of exploration and production.
The conservative National Action Party (PAN), the PRI's natural ally on the energy revamp, is pushing for more lucrative contracts to be offered, such as concessions, and lawmakers say they are exploring options for a deeper reform.
Long the dominant force in Mexican politics, the PRI lacks a majority in Congress and needs PAN support to pass the energy bill, which is expected to happen later this month.
The PAN has made its support for the energy overhaul conditional on the electoral reform passing first.
In 2000, the PAN succeeded in ejecting the PRI from power after it had ruled for 71 consecutive years.
When Pena Nieto recaptured the presidency last year, opposition parties resolved to use their leverage in Congress to weaken the PRI's grip on the Mexican political system.
The electoral reform aims to do that, by giving more powers to voters in the process of electing lawmakers.
Senators, whose terms last six years, and lower house deputies, who serve three, will be allowed to sit in each respective chamber of Congress for up to 12 years. The bill also opens the door to direct re-election of local lawmakers.
At present, Mexican federal and state lawmakers cannot be directly re-elected to the same office. The reform foresees no change for the president, who can only serve one six-year term.
Once the electoral reform has cleared Congress, all eyes will turn to the government's energy plan.
That bill forms part of a package of reforms encompassing efforts to open up the telecommunications sector, improve bank lending and strengthen the tax take which the government hopes will help boost weak growth in Latin America's no. 2 economy.
The leftist Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), which is opposed to opening the oil sector to private investors, withdrew from the cross-party pact last week, raising hopes the PRI and the PAN will agree to a more far-reaching energy reform.