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Mexico ends tight, tough race

The hotly contested race turned negative in the run-up to Sunday's vote.

By Danna HarmanStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / June 30, 2006



MEXICO CITY

Six years ago, Vicente Fox won a historic presidential election here and ushered in a new era of true multiparty politics. Out went the days of rigged elections, hand-picked leaders, and rubber-stamp congresses, and in came a period of more responsive politicians, increasing transparency, vigorous political debate – and vicious negative campaigning.

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"[This year's presidential race] has been the most competitive, arguably the most interesting race in our history ... but also the dirtiest," says Julio Madrazo of the CMM consultant group in Mexico City.

The outcome of Sunday's vote will affect whether Mexico will join Latin America's leftward trend or continue to strengthen US ties and focus on free-market reforms.

Andrés Manuel López Obrador, a leftist who portrays himself as a savior of the poor, holds a very slim lead in opinion polls over conservative Felipe Calderón, a proponent of fiscal conservatism and free trade. Running third in polls is Roberto Madrazo, of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) that governed Mexico from 1929 to 2000. Two other minor candidates have single-digit support each.

But for many Mexicans, notes Mark Schneider, a Latin America expert at the Brussels-based International Crisis Group, it's the negative campaigning, and not the substance that will ultimately drive the vote.

"There is no question that Mexican democracy is maturing with a truly competitive multiparty system," he says. "But unfortunately the political process has not been able to avoid the pitfalls that a media-dominated electoral environment throw up in the way of serious debate over policies and issues."

Latin America's second-most populous country is home to 106 million people and features a wide gap between rich and poor. Local businessman Carlos Slim is the world's third wealthiest tycoon, according to Forbes Magazine – and yet 1 in 5 citizens lives under the poverty line. Mexico is a resource-rich land – but chronic unemployment continues to drive millions every year to sneak across the border into the US in search of work.

On these economic, and other problems, the top candidates offer starkly different approaches.

Mr. Obrador, of the Democratic Revolution Party (PRD), is an opponent of privatization who supports a more active state role in the economy. His plans include creating low-income jobs through large infrastructure projects, and spending more on social programs such as pensions for the elderly. He also says he will review parts of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and refocus attention on domestic policy.

But ask anyone on the street in Mexico City's ritzy Polanco neighborhood what the most important thing about Obrador is, and they will most likely begin talking about Venezuela's populist, anti-American president Hugo Chávez.

"If Obrador wins, we are goners. We might as well move out of the country, because he is a hot-headed vengeful lackey of Chávez and [Cuban President Fidel] Castro," says banker Carlos Molina while picking up a latte at a local Starbucks. "And he is coming after us."

Going negative

Such fear of an Obrador victory was set in motion by Mr. Calderón's TV ads this March, which repeatedly flashed a clip of the former mayor calling President Fox a "squawking bird." Obrador, intoned a narrator, was "a danger to Mexico." The ads accused Obrador of saddling the capital with huge debts during his five-year stint as Mexico City's mayor, compared him to Chávez, and even insinuated the Venezuelan leader was bankrolling him.

The vitriolic ads were eventually pulled by Mexico's Federal Electoral Institute (IFE) but the message stuck, reinforcing the idea that Obrador was authoritarian, irreverent, out "to get" the wealthy, and would ruin the economy.

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