One of the hot topics of debate in Mexico's presidential race is whether a vote for the third-place runner, Cuauhtmoc Crdenas, is a wasted vote.
It's a familiar dilemma for voters anywhere when there are more than two candidates for the same post: vote for the person you really want, or vote for a likely winner?
Mr. Crdenas, the candidate of the leftist-nationalist Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) still doesn't look like a winner, but he's surging in the polls. And Crdenas owes some of that boost to the popularity of his party colleague in Mexico City.
Barring a shift in voter preferences before the July 2 vote, the PRD's rabblerousing and charismatic Manuel Lpez Obrador will become the capital's new mayor - arguably Mexico's second-most-important elected office.
By doing so, Mr. Lpez Obrador will maintain a PRD soap-box counterpoint to whoever wins the Mexican presidency - either the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party's (PRI) Francisco Labastida, or populist challenger Vicente Fox, from the center-right National Action Party (PAN).
Lpez Obrador will also help assure that Mexico remains a solidly three-party country. Although the PRD is unlikely to get Los Pinos - the Mexican White House - the Mexico City mayor's office and a strong voice in Congress would keep the PRD at the helm of an ideological tilt in Mexico that mirrors a similar tendency across Latin America.
"Like other countries of the region, what Mexico is experiencing is not so much a strengthening of the left as it is a demand for more social equality within a globalizing world," says Joel Estudillo, a political analyst at the Mexican Institute for Political Studies in Mexico City. "It's a little leftward inclination in terms of what role the state should play before an ascendant free market, but it's not a rejection" of an economic model based on international trade and investment.
While Mexico's presidential election remains too close to call less than three weeks from voting day, what stands out is a clear majority's rejection of the ruling PRI. In recent reliable polls, Mr. Labastida receives around 42 percent of voter preference - down from better than 50 percent when campaigning started last fall. Mr. Fox hovers around 39 percent, while Crdenas has inched up to about 17 - giving them together an undisputable anti-PRI majority.
But because the two opposition candidates are ferociously split, Labastida has a good chance to extend the PRI's reign. And in that scenario, Crdenas's PRD has decided to campaign on its "principles" - faith in heavy government intervention in national life, suspicion toward the workings of the free market, more attention to minorities and Indians. That stance may keep the PRD a national force and ruler of the capital.
"The PRI has damaged Mexico so much it can't be considered, and Fox is a big talker, a crude campesino, I don't see him as president," says Csar Meyer Rodrguez, a Mexico City computer sciences student. "At least Crdenas sticks to what he believes in, even if he can't win. That's worth something."
Lpez Obrador can be as gritty as the southeast oil-producing state of Tabasco from which he hails. But his recent stint as national PRD president revealed his talents as a political strategist and grass-roots campaigner. It was this talent that the often dour Crdenas wanted to tap to hold on to Mexico City - and to help the PRD's prospects in general. Crdenas, who won the capital's first mayoral election in 1997 (previous mayors were appointed by the president) was instrumental in convincing Lpez Obrador to seek the mayor's chair rather than the Tabasco governorship, analysts say.
There are other reasons for Lpez Obrador's high standing with voters, most analysts agree. For one thing, residents credit Crdenas and the PRD with doing a better job at managing the capital's chaos than relentless critics within the PRI say they did.
Lpez Obrador's popularity in Mexico's capital and the attention he is drawing to his party's campaign are factors in Crdenas's recent rise in presidential polls, analysts say. If the PAN's cowboy-booted Fox comes up short against the PRI, he may blame Lpez Obrador. "Crdenas is gaining as a result of becoming more aggressive on the campaign trail," says Mr. Estudillo. "And Lpez Obrador is helping him with that, mostly here [in the Mexican capital] but to some extent elsewhere as well."
Crdenas, the man many Mexicans believe actually won a fraud-marred presidential election in 1988, is finding his attacks on Fox are working. "The only thing that interests Vicente Fox is winning the election, but we don't know why," Crdenas told a campaign rally in Zacatecas state last week. "Mexico can't have a president who moves his mouth ... but has no ideas or principles or commitments to the nation."
Such strong words haven't kept former PRD activists and prominent left-wing intellectuals from jumping to Fox as the only opposition candidate who can end the PRI's 70-year hold on power. That enticing possibility, plus Fox's comment that he would govern "a little to the left" and with a pluralistic government, have made the former Coca-Cola executive and state governor palatable to Mexicans who normally wouldn't vote for the PAN.
Still, by forging ahead despite his third-place standing in polls, Crdenas is creating a contrast to what many voters perceive as Fox's political opportunism: for example, parading with a banner of the virgin of Guadalupe one day, then declaring his undivided support for the separation of church and state the next.
By drawing voters who like his aggressive stand for principles, Crdenas is amplifying his party's post-election voice. Some analysts say that has really been his primary goal all along. The attacks by Crdenas and the PRD in general "are hurting Fox, but more important for the party is how they are giving PRD supporters something to rally around," says Alberto Arnaut, a political scientist at Colegio de Mexico, a graduate research center in Mexico City. "They had to do this to survive."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society