Mexican Senate passes electoral bill, paving way for energy debate

MEXICO CITY Wed Dec 4, 2013 9:58am EST

MEXICO CITY Dec 4 (Reuters) - Mexico's Senate passed an electoral reform demanded by the opposition early on Wednesday, helping clear the way for Congress to focus on an energy bill crucial to President Enrique Pena Nieto's economic agenda.

The electoral bill, which would let lawmakers serve consecutive terms in office and curb the power of the presidency, now heads to the lower house, which is expected to give it final approval in the next few days.

Opposition conservatives have made their support for backing the energy overhaul, which aims to open the state-controlled oil sector to private investment, conditional on passage of the electoral reform.

Mexico's peso rallied on Tuesday after the leader of Pena Nieto's Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) in the Senate said that lawmakers could turn to the energy bill as soon as the political reform was approved.

Further boosting the peso, prominent Mexican leftist Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador was rushed to a hospital for surgery on Tuesday after suffering a heart attack, crimping his ability to lead street protests against the energy revamp.

The leftist Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), which is opposed to opening the oil sector to private investors, withdrew from a cross-party pact last week, raising hopes that PRI lawmakers and conservatives will pass a far-reaching energy reform.

The energy overhaul is a cornerstone of Pena Nieto's economic reform drive, which spans telecoms to bank lending and education and seeks to boost long-lagging growth in Latin America's No.2 economy.

The conservative National Action Party (PAN), the PRI's natural ally on the energy revamp, is pushing for more lucrative contracts to be offered, such as concessions, and lawmakers say they are exploring options for bigger changes.

Long the dominant force in Mexican politics, the PRI lacks a majority in Congress and needs PAN support to pass the energy bill, which is expected to happen later this month.

The electoral reform sets out rules for coalition governments and aims to strengthen Congress at the expense of the president.

The bill would also empower electoral authorities to annul elections if the winner exceeded campaign spending limits. Pena Nieto was accused by Lopez Obrador and the PAN of heavily overspending in his campaign.

Senators, whose terms last six years, and lower house deputies, who serve three, will be allowed to sit in each respective chamber of Congress for up to 12 years.

At present, Mexican federal and state lawmakers cannot be directly re-elected to the same office. The reform foresees no change for the president, who can only serve one six-year term.

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