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Don’t wobble on reforms, Mexican leader tells nation

President Enrique Pena Nieto, facing a sudden downturn in his political fortunes, vowed Monday to forge ahead with a sweeping restructuring of the state despite a slumping economy, promising that “the great transformation of Mexico is possible.”

Pena Nieto called on legislators not to back down in the face of surging civil unrest against proposals that he said would improve schools, put the economy on sounder footing and unshackle the nation’s energy potential.

“Let’s be audacious and dare to make the great leap in our development,” Pena Nieto said in an annual address to the nation.

Pena Nieto tried to reverse public sentiment that he may be unable to curb violent crime and deliver the rapid economic growth he promised on taking office nine months ago. In the past two weeks, his government has faced widespread street protests, a setback in congress, and a sharp downgrade in Mexico’s outlook to a lackluster 1.8 percent economic growth.

Analysts say the clock is ticking on the honeymoon period in which he can expect to push through the bulk of an ambitious restructuring agenda.

Pena Nieto said an array of his proposals affecting energy, schools, taxation and poverty eradication have the potential to alter Mexico’s destiny far into the 21st century.

“In the next few months, we will be deciding what history we will write for the coming decades,” he said. “We have 120 days left so that 2013 may be remembered as the year of great transformations, the year in which Mexico dared to take off.”

Pena Nieto hailed the Chamber of Deputies for approving a proposal late Sunday that would take away control of school jobs from powerful unions and require teachers to face evaluations. The Chamber last week suspended the vote as tens of thousands of striking teachers flooded the capital’s streets.

The 47-year-old leader delayed his speech for a day and issued it in the safety of Los Pinos, the presidential residence, rather than brave a journey across the city to the National Palace. Teacher protests have shut down major boulevards, and led to clashes with riot police.

“Education reform will advance. I say it with all conviction,” Pena Nieto said, adding that it was part of his government’s broader efforts to reduce entitlement and economic advantage enjoyed by a minority of Mexico’s 118 million citizens.

“This has been done so that quality education, wealth and opportunities in Mexico do not continue being the privilege of a few,” he said.

Pena Nieto said he was launching a pilot program to give laptop computers to fifth and sixth graders in several poorer states.

Mexico’s economic slump marks a sharp reversal from barely six months ago, when the nation was in the eye of investors around the world, seen as part of the high-growth MIST countries _ Mexico, Indonesia, South Korea and Turkey _ likely to step up as China and India faltered.

New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman called Mexico a likely “Comeback Kid” while The Economist newsweekly hailed “Mexico’s Moment.”

The question these days is if Pena Nieto overplayed his hand in the past month, piling on reform proposals too quickly. Just as he announced a watershed proposal Aug. 12 to open the state oil industry to foreign investment, striking teachers began to congregate in the capital. They’ve since been joined by leftists opposed to relaxing a state grip on the national oil company and a smattering of anarchists.

Some Mexicans also question government claims that it is getting the better of criminal drug-related organizations.

Pena Nieto said Monday that law enforcement authorities had captured or killed 65 of 122 most wanted criminals since he came to office, and reduced violent crime by 20 percent over a year earlier period.

Watchdog groups accuse the government of massaging figures on homicides. Proceso newsweekly this week said the death toll this year has hit 13,775 people, on a par if not slightly up from the past two years.

Three opinion polls released over the weekend underscore how public support for Pena Nieto wavers on several fronts.

A Consulta Mitofsky poll released Sunday showed Pena Nieto with support of 56 percent of Mexicans. While still substantial, the poll noted that his two predecessors in office had higher support at the same point in their six-year terms.

Another poll, El Universal-Buendia & Laredo, found that 49 percent of Mexicans believe that drug-related violence has worsened since Pena Nieto took office. Only a quarter of Mexicans saw an improvement.

On the economic front, a BGC-Excelsior poll found that 70 percent of Mexicans think the economy is the same or worse than it was a year ago.

Even though Pena Nieto remains early in his term, his presidency is at a crossroads, columnist Raymundo Riva Palacio wrote on 24 Horas, a news portal.

“The history of Mexico and the world shows that radical transformations must come in the first year of office, when you have consensus, strength and your opponents are still accommodating to the new reality,” Riva Palacio wrote.

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