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Mexico's Winning Presidential Candidate Favors Strong Ties to US

Mexicans are still not completely sure who won their presidential election, more than two weeks after the voting. Official results showed ruling party candidate Felipe Calderon winning by less than six-tenths of a percentage point over leftist rival Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, who has challenged the results.

If the legal challenges fail and Calderon is officially declared the winner, as is expected, he would keep Mexico on the same free-market and free trade track it has been on under President Vicente Fox. VOA's Greg Flakus reports from Houston that would bode well for relations with the United States.

President Bush and other U.S. officials have consistently said the United States will work with whichever candidate is declared the winner in Mexico. But the apparent victory by Felipe Calderon certainly presents Washington with fewer problems.

Lopez Obrador is viewed by many business leaders in Mexico and the United States as a more volatile and problematic figure who would seek changes in the North American Free Trade Agreement. NAFTA binds Mexico commercially with the United States and Canada.

Felipe Calderon, on the other hand, is a Harvard graduate who wants to expand Mexico's trade relations.

Business leaders at the Houston World Affairs Council were given a glimpse at what a Calderon government might do, just prior to the election.

Arturo Sarukhan, Mr. Calderon's international affairs coordinator, says trade relations are a priority. "There is no relationship more important for the future well-being of Mexico than the relationship with the United States."

Sarukhan says Mr. Calderon sees benefits from NAFTA and other trade agreements that go well beyond imports and exports. "We have become a much more accountable nation. We have become much more open to the world, much more anchored in the world, as a result of NAFTA. In many ways, we believe that foreign policy today in Mexico should help to anchor democratic change in Mexico."

Sarukhan said in an interview with VOA that the major irritant of illegal Mexican immigration to the United States can be overcome through a bilateral effort.

"Mexico, certainly, has to do its part of the work in generating the growth and the opportunities that its society needs and demands, but we also have to understand that there is a very important pull factor on this side of the border."

Sarukhan says Mr. Calderon also would favor opening the state-owned oil company, Pemex, to limited foreign investment. "We think that, if we can do this, we can make Pemex much more accountable, much more transparent, much more cost efficient and provide the types of resources that we need to tap into, to provide the type of investment to boost Mexico and make it competitive with the likes of India and China today in the world."

But such an opening, however small, would require a change in the Mexican constitution. That would not be easy, given the divisions in Congress and the society at large. Many Mexicans remain leery of the United States. But members of a rising middle class are more open to change.

Sarukhan says President Vicente Fox's policies have contributed to the growth of the middle class. He believes that growth would continue if Mr. Calderon becomes president. "This is probably the first time since the 1970's where you are starting to see the resurgence of a urban, lower-middle class that is, for the first time, able to access credit to buy a house, to buy a car, to send the kids to a summer holiday, and I think there is a feeling today that people are better off than their parents were a generation ago."

But about half of Mexico's population still lives in poverty. Many of the poor see little benefit from economic liberalization.

They back the challenges from the left and could make it even more difficult for Calderon to govern effectively if he does eventually assume office.