Dario Lopez-Mills/AP
A man casts one of his ballots at a polling station in Atlacomulco, Mexico July 1. Mexico's more than 79 million voters went to the polls Sunday to elect a president, who will serve one six-year term, as well as 500 congressional deputies and 128 senators.

Mexicans at polls talk of jobs, drug violence

Mexico's presidential election today is a choice between four candidates – and not voting at all. 

Jose Eduardo Salas is a young Mexican with a degree in mechanical engineering, no job, and few prospects, he says, so he is placing his vote in Mexico's presidential election today for Enrique Peña Nieto of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), who he says he believes holds Mexico's best hope for progress.

He, like millions of other Mexicans, are at the polls today to elect a leader for the next six years, one who will have to address a sputtering economy and a crime wave that has seen over 50,000 killed in drug-related violence in the past six years.

Polls leading up to the race have put Mr. Peña Nieto at the front of a pack of four, even though the PRI held a tight, authoritarian grip on Mexico for 71 years, until it was voted out of power in 2000.

But many Mexicans remained undecided leading up to the race, and many have also opted not to vote, currents present in Salas's own family.

His grandfather, Roberto Cienfuegos, accompanied his grandson and son to the station, with their 2-year-old Boxer Kikon, but stayed outside. He has no plans to vote.

“It doesn't make a difference,” says Mr. Cienfuegos, who voted for the leftist candidate in the 2006 race who is also running this year, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador. Mr. Lopez Obrador lost by less than a percentage point, declared fraud, and never accepted the results as many of his followers, including Cienfuegos.

His son, Juan Manuel Cienfuegos, did opt to vote – though kept his pick private, as many Mexicans do – but expressed deep skepticism that it will even make a difference. “Crime and jobs are the most important problems,” says the small business owner. “But no one is going to be able to solve either.”

Reports from around the country showed that voting was underway without any incidents of major violence. The polls are open until 6 p.m. local time and partial results are expected two hours later.

Peña Nieto's main rivals are Lopez Obrador of the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) and Josefina Vazquez Mota of the right-leaning ruling party, the National Action Party (PAN). President Felipe Calderon is not running for re-election, as under the constitution presidents are barred from a second term.

Each of the candidates had clear supporters today when the Monitor asked voters what their preference was, except the fourth candidate Gabriel Quadri, the only candidate from outside the major parties: He is expected to figure in the low single-digits.

Here are profiles are the other three candidates, the policies that they are offering, and the baggage that their parties carry as election 2012 unfolds:

Enrique Peña Nieto

Backroom deals. Rigged elections. Pacts with drug lords.

Those are the accusations thrown at Mexico's Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) after 71 years in power, an era that Nobel laureate Mario Vargas Llosa dubbed the “perfect dictatorship.”

When the PRI lost the presidency in 2000, for the first time since its founding in 1929, there was overwhelming excitement and relief. And yet, just 12 years after Mexico's transition to democracy – amid a public wearied by violence and skeptical about how deep Mexico’s democratic transition really was – the PRI seems to be making a comeback.

Now, many are wondering whether a PRI victory in this election would mean that Mexico is retreating from its long march toward democracy. Student protestors have recently taken to the streets and written on social media with fury about the implications of the PRI coming back to power.

The PRI says it is a political party "of today." Its candidate, Enrique Peña Nieto, hails from a younger, more modern generation that cares deeply about democracy, the party says, yet with the PRI's backing he can leverage the party's vast political experience and efficiency to solve the country's deepest economic and security problems.

It's unclear how many Mexicans are buying this message, but polls show Mr. Peña Nieto is out front with a comfortable two-digit advantage, according to most polls, in part because they are voting against the status quo.

Twelve years after its democratic transition, Mexicans are disillusioned with the state of democracy, which many say they believed would have deepened by now. Weak institutions, monopolies that cripple competition and economic growth, and corruption still dominate. Among the top concerns is violence, including the 50,000-plus drug-related deaths in six years.

“There is a kind of longing for the 'good old days,' when there was corruption but not as much violence,” says Lorenzo Meyer, a noted historian in Mexico. “[The PRI was] corrupt but not that inefficient. [Mexicans are saying] 'let us return to good old days of efficient authoritarianism.'"

Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador

Across Latin America, the left – from the fiery nationalism of Venezuela to the more market-friendly left of Brazil – dominates. Even in places where leftists are not in power, they’re still a force to be reckoned with.

But in Mexico this election cycle, the left only became competitive less than a month before presidential elections July 1. After languishing in third place as he struggled to brand himself as a capable leader, Andrés Manuel López Obrador is now in second, though most polls show his rival, frontrunner Enrique Peña Nieto, with a comfortable lead. Many say the left should be a powerhouse in Mexico, due to the country’s vast disparities between rich and poor. But the main leftist party, the Party of the Democratic Revolution(PRD), has never held the presidency.

Mr. López Obrador and his PRD almost won the previous election in 2006, and to some observers, he did. After his defeat he declared fraud and led sit-in protests that brought Mexico City to a standstill, alienating many of his supporters and dividing his party.

But the left’s uphill battle this year is not just about the controversial candidate it has fielded or internal divisions in the party. The left is also hampered by Mexico’s unique history of one-party leadership under the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which is leading the race today.  Founded in the wake of the Mexican Revolution, the PRI wielded socialist rhetoric and a vigorous nationalism that eclipsed and co-opted the message of the left. Put simply, many voters who tilt left in Mexico are drawn to the PRI instead of the PRD.

“[The PRD] is probably too close to the old regime, and that has been a very difficult problem for the left,” says sociologist Roger Barta, a professor emeritus at Mexico's National Autonomous University.

Josefina Vazquez Mota

Mexico's National Action Party (PAN) was targeting the “modern” Mexican woman when it nominated Josefina Vazquez Mota for president.

But the PAN’s strategic move – becoming the first major party to nominate a female candidate for president – hasn’t worked out as planned.

Mexico has hit a milestone with Ms. Vazquez Mota’s nomination, but she has been unable to disassociate herself from the public’s discontent with her party’s 12 years in power, especially on security. And even if some women are drawn to her, for many others, she hasn’t come off as modern enough.

Vazquez Mota chose one simple word as her campaign slogan: “Different.” She is presenting herself as a leader in machista Mexico who intimately understands how to navigate work and mothering, and a woman who would be more honest and sensitive to the needs of working families. In a country where fertility rates have dropped precipitously, the education gap between sexes has narrowed, and women are increasingly entering the workforce, many say it’s time Mexico had a female in the top office.

"I will be Mexico's first presidenta," Vazquez Mota said after winning the party's primary in February.

The words capture a sense of optimism about the rise of women in leadership across the region, where females have held presidencies from Chile to Argentina to Brazil.

But, boxed in by party ideology and her own beliefs, she has been unable to capture a significant “female” vote to tip the race in the PAN’s favor. “She [has] tried to promote herself as different because she is a woman but she does not embody any of the feminist discourses,” says Fernando Dworak, a political analyst in Mexico City. “She says she is different, but she can't say how she is different.”

Vazquez Mota was considered the winner in the second round of presidential debates in July, going on the attack and trying to paint her rivals as part of the old corrupt machinery of the past. But catch-up will have to be meteoric if she is to prevail.

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