Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto has the votes he needs to pass his reform of Pemex, Mexico's flagging state oil company.  Together, his center-left Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) and the conservative National Action Party (PAN) make up more than the two-thirds majority needed to pass the constitutional changes the president is proposing.  Mexico's left is digging in its heels at the prospect.  On Monday, the founder of the leftist Party of the Democratic Revolution, Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas - son of former president Lázaro Cárdenas, who in 1938 nationalized Mexico's petroleum - denounced the government's initiative as a "privatization" and said if Peña Nieto's reform passed, his party would put the question to the public in a referendum after the fact. 

"If in this legislative period, the [constitutional changes] were to be disgracefully approved," Cárdenas said in a Monday speech, he would call for allies to round up some 1.6 million signatures from Mexican voters necessary to force a referendum.  If 40 percent of the public show up to the polls, the referendum would be binding, and the constitutional changes could be rolled back.  "Let's start organizing now.  I'm claiming the responsibility of convening them, so that we can be timely about getting the 1,630,000 registered voters on the nominal list". 

Cárdenas and the left appear to have the public on their side.  A poll published by El Universal found most Mexicans see the need to reform Pemex, but more than 60 percent oppose the idea of private investment in it.  Peña Nieto insists his plan does not amount to privatization, and says it hews closely to the model which Lázaro Cárdenas, who became a national hero when he kicked out foreign oil companies some 75 years ago, had originally drawn up for codification in the Constitution - a notion which drew a round rebuke from Cárdenas the younger.  Peña Nieto's reform would let foreign firms find and extract Mexico's crude through contract jobs, but the oil wouldn't pass out of the hands of the state until the sale of it was finalized. 

By law, the referendum Cárdenas is proposing would have to be held at the same time as a federal election.  The next one is in 2015.  Duncan Wood, director of the Mexico Institute at the Woodrow Wilson Center, thinks by then it'll be a moot point.  "By that point, the first contracts will have already been issued," he told the Latin Times.  But he added that if the left does manage to force a referendum and the public comes out in force against Peña Nieto's plan, the constitutional changes would have to be reversed, effectively nullifying contracts issued to foreign firms.  "This means that there will be considerable uncertainty until July 2015, which could be a serious deterrent to investors," Wood said.

Despite the left's fulminating against the president's plan, it may be more likely to work with the governing PRI in pushing its own ideas for reform into the final version of the bill while trying to reap the political benefits of an anti-Peña-Nieto change.  On Monday, the PRD released its own plan for reform, one which would seek to let it operate more like a publically-owned company instead of merely another wing of the government, including reducing its tax burden and freeing up its board from union control and government oversight of its decisions.  The conservative PAN supports many of these ideas, and could help pressure the PRI - to which a bloated and corrupt Pemex union has long thrown its weight -into incorporating them.

But the PRD's biggest bet is essentially one on the innovative power of its country's scientists.  The petroleum reserves Mexico has already tapped are nearing their end, and by 2020 it could become a net importer of oil if it doesn't figure out how to access its deep-water and shale gas reserves.  Foreign firms like Shell or Exxon have invested billions of dollars into researching and producing technology to be able to do that, and even then it still isn't certain how sound it is - in 2011, for example, shale gas exploration triggered a small earthquake in England.  The PRD is leaving it up to Pemex's research wing, the Mexican Institute of Petroleum, to figure out a fast solution.  It won't likely be in alternative energy either, as the PRD, like the other two main parties, have given it a backseat role in their proposal.

"Most of us seriously doubt that [the Mexican Institute of Petroleum] can," says Wood.  "And if they were able to do it, it would take them a long time - another 5-10 years."  By then, it might be too late for a company that funds about 30 percent of Mexico's annual budget. 

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