A woman as Mexico's president?

On Sunday, the ruling party nominated Josefina Vazquez Mota to be the first woman candidate for president from a major Mexican party. Would she instill rule of law and sustain the fight against drug cartels?

Claudia Daut/Reuters
Josefina Vazquez Mota, presidential candidate of Mexico's ruling conservatives, the National Action Party (PAN), could be the country's first female president.

Both Mexico and the United States hold major elections in 2012, but the big difference between the two contests is that Mexico has a woman running for president – the first ever from a major party.

On Sunday, former education minister Josefina Vázquez Mota easily won the nomination of the ruling party, the National Action Party, or PAN, defying its establishment. If she goes on to win the July 1 election, Mexico will join a few other Latin American countries that have elected women as presidents, such as Brazil, Chile, Costa Rica, and Argentina.

As Ms. Vázquez points out, Mexico may finally be ready for a woman leader. The country needs a strong fighter against corruption. Most of all it must embrace the rule of law. About half of Mexicans say their fellow citizens rarely or never respect the law. Without such progress, curbing the drug cartels or preventing illegal immigration will remain difficult.

One of Vázquez’s promises is to seek life sentences for politicians who collaborate with organized crime. She also warns of a return to Mexico’s antidemocratic and highly corrupt past if her main rival, Enrique Peña Nieto, is elected. He is the nominee of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, which ruled Mexico for seven decades until it lost to PAN in 2000.

So far, Mr. Peña Nieto, a young lawyer, has been gaffe prone on the stump, even saying that he didn’t know the price of tortillas because he is “not the lady of the house.”

Women are now breadwinners in 7 of 10 Mexican households, Vázquez says, but that influence has yet to be reflected in women gaining elected office. Under the previous president, Vicente Fox, Vázquez was minister of social development. She saw the influence of women immigrants returning to Mexico from the US where they discovered a new freedom, making their own money and operating independent of male relatives.

“We are hard workers, we take great responsibility for our decisions ... we have won many campaigns for many men,” she said. “The moment has come to win campaigns for ourselves.”

Vázquez, who once wrote self-help books for a living, was the campaign manager for current president, Felipe Calderón, although he endorsed a party rival. She plans to continue Mr. Calderón’s long and violent war on the cartels – which has taken nearly 50,000 lives.

Polls show Vázquez trailing the PRI candidate, but campaigning has yet to fully begin. Under the 12-year rule of PAN, Mexico has made much economic progress, but voters may believe the PRI’s claim that it has reformed itself and thus return it to power.

Not if Vázquez has anything to do with it. She has been compared to Germany’s leader, Angela Merkel, who is also a conservative and an astute politician. Both women once experienced life under nondemocratic regimes. Vázquez fully appreciates the new opportunities for women to run for office. She doesn’t want PRI to close that door again.

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