An old name returns to rule a tough city

Joy on the streets as a populist overturns the corrupt old guard
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The Independent Online
The last time a man called Cuauhtemoc fought for Mexico City was almost 500 years ago. He was emperor of the Aztecs and his opponent was a Spaniard called Cortes.

Yesterday there was no bloodshed, only noisy celebrations, as the populist politician Cuauhtemoc Cardenas, named after the emperor, won the capital from the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) for the first time.

Mr Cardenas, 63, becomes the first elected mayor of Mexico City in 70 years, making him the second most powerful man in the country after President Ernesto Zedillo, and providing him with a stepping stone for a presidential bid in 2000. After the PRI conceded defeat on Sunday night, a triumphant Mr Cardenas greeted supporters of his left-of-centre Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) outside the mayor's office on the Zocalo, the capital's huge main square, only a stone's throw from the site of the Aztec emperor's defeat by Cortes. The night erupted into an orgy of fireworks, balloons and mariachi bands.

"This is a triumph for the people, a triumph for those of us who kept fighting for democracy," said Mr Cardenas, son of a revered former president from the PRI and himself a PRI-ista until he broke away 10 years ago, out of disgust over the party's lack of democratic ideals.

"Cuauh-tem-oc, Cuauh-tem-oc," supporters chanted as hundreds of taxis drove in convoy around the square until snarling themselves in a huge traffic jam.

Mr Cardenas, widely know as el ingeniero because of his civil engineering degree, sees the job as mayor as a step towards emulating his father, General Lazaro Cardenas, PRI President of Mexico from 1934-40, and Mexico's most popular President this century because of his land reform and nationalisations.

Proud of his part-Indian heritage, General Cardenas named his son after the emperor who fought Cortes in 1521. Cuauhtemoc ran for president in 1988; he and most Mexicans believe he won but was robbed through fraud. His opponents say a future Cardenas presidency would end in populist measures and economic ruin but Mr Cardenas has tried to calm investors with trips to the US and an about-turn on his earlier rejection of the North America Free Trade Agreement (Nafta).

A change in image from his dour, wooden approach to an almost Blair-style campaign of flashing teeth - coupled with public disillusionment with the country's economic crisis - gave him a landslide victory over the PRI and the conservative National Action Party (PAN) in Sunday's vote.

It may be the second most powerful post in the country, but being mayor of this violent, smog-ridden capital could also be political quicksand. If he runs for President, Mr Cardenas will be mayor for only 20 months and PRI militants may do all they can to compound his city problems and thereby scupper his presidential bid.

Corruption among the police and a lack of security will be the new mayor's priorities, along with industrial and vehicle pollution, public transport in a city of more than 20 million and inadequate water supplies.