Mexican elite in turmoil over first lady's ambitions

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Mexico's first lady came under heavy fire this week after her political ambitions were blamed for the resignation of her husband's chief of staff.

Mexico's first lady came under heavy fire this week after her political ambitions were blamed for the resignation of her husband's chief of staff.

President Vicente Fox's aide Alfonso Durazo stepped down on Monday, saying his decision was prompted by frustration at Marta Sahagun's "flirtation with politics".

Mrs Sahagun, a glamorous and neatly coiffured former press secretary to Mr Fox, married the president in 2001, a year after he ended Mexico's Institutional Revolutionary Party's (PRI) seven decades in power.

A figure with a strong public profile, she had hinted that Mexico was ready for a presidenta or woman president, stoking rumours that she may run for office herself in the next elections in 2006.

In a 19-page resignation letter, Mr Durazo said he had grown disillusioned with Mr Fox's government, and the way it was swayed by Mrs Sahagun's political ambitions. He accused Mr Fox of behaving as if he were a member of the corrupt and paternalistic party that he ousted from power in 2000.

"The desire for a government to decide who the next president will be or won't be was the original sin of the old regime," he wrote. "The country has certainly advanced politically, enough that it is ready for a woman to reach the presidency of the republic. Nevertheless, it is not prepared to have the president leave the presidency to his wife."

Once favourably compared to other power-spouses in the region, including Hillary Clinton and even Argentina's Eva Peron, commentators last week compared Mrs Sahagun to Yoko Ono, controversial wife of the late John Lennon, and Elena Ceaucescu, wife of the late Romanian dictator.

"What should we do with her?" asked Guadalupe Loaeza in an editorial in the daily Reforma newspaper..

"There is not a day, not an hour, not a minute in which [Sahagun] is not meddling in the country's affairs, messing them up even more. Who can stop her, hold her, tie her up, shut her in, shut her up, immobilise her, muzzle her, suspend her?"

Leading figures in Mr Fox's National Action Party (PAN) also showed their fury at reports of Mrs Sahagun's ambitions, which come as the government enters the final two years of its six-year term, amid complaints that it has failed to eradicate corruption as it promised or deliver much-needed energy, tax and labour sector reforms.

Constitutional term limits bar Mr Fox from running again, and many opposition voices in Mexico have suggested that a win at the ballot by Mrs Sahagun would be tantamount to a second term for Mr Fox.

On a trip to Brazil this week Mr Fox denied that his wife has any intention of seeking Mexico's presidency, saying that he and Mrs Sahagun would return to his family's ranch in central Mexico's Guanjuato province when he leaves office in two years' time: "We know when it's time for us to leave Los Pinos" - referring to the presidential residency in Mexico City - "and we know what our next project will be, we are very clear on that. We won't be seen in politics."

The first lady has not said whether she will seek the presidential nomination for the PAN in 2006, but has refused to rule out the possibility.

Mr Fox said Mr Durazo's criticisms were unfounded. "If what he's trying to say with his letter is that the President is supporting his wife as a candidate, he is absolutely incorrect, " Mr Fox said.