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September 24, 2017

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Mexico minnows hold big cards in Congress

MEXICO CITY -- Throughout Mexico's election campaign, the party that held the country in an iron grip for most of the 20th century was tipped to recapture the presidency by storm and take control of Congress.

In the end, the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, fell short of a legislative majority and it may now have to lean heavily on two fringe parties to pass reforms.

After his smaller-than-expected victory on July 1, President-elect Enrique Pena Nieto and the PRI are hoping for support from a Green Party with a liking for the death penalty and another group that serves as a political vehicle for the controversial head of the teachers' union.

The PRI won 207 seats in the 500-member lower house of Congress according to projections, and will have just 240 seats with the Greens, its coalition partner. Add the New Alliance Party (PANAL), which is backed by the teachers' union, and the PRI could control exactly half of the seats.

"The little parties are now more important than ever," said Federico Berrueto, the director general of polling firm GCE.

Ranged against the PRI is a bloc of leftist parties that refuse to acknowledge Pena Nieto's victory and the ruling National Action Party, or PAN, of outgoing President Felipe Calderon.

The PAN will insist on concessions in return for its backing although it is in principle supportive of Pena Nieto's plans to overhaul antiquated labor laws, open up state oil giant Pemex to more foreign investment and broaden the tax base.

In the Senate, Pena Nieto will be short of a majority even with the Greens and PANAL. So he knows he cannot avoid negotiating with other parties, a task he also shouldered while governor of the State of Mexico between 2005 and 2011.

But some of the PAN's likely demands, including measures to weaken the power of public sector unions, would put Pena Nieto under pressure inside the PRI, so he will likely seek help from the small parties to minimize his reliance on the PAN.

The PANAL could have 10 seats in the lower house and has signaled it is willing to work with Pena Nieto. The PRI had strong ties with the teachers' union during the 71 years it ruled Mexico before the PAN ousted it in a 2000 election.

But the PANAL's support will not be unconditional.

"We're not going to hand out any blank checks," said Luis Castro, the party's chairman.

The PANAL was created under the auspices of Elba Esther Gordillo, head of the teachers' union and a former PRI grandee who broke with her old party before the last election in 2006.

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