- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 2, 2006


Mexican voters choosing a new president face a stark choice today between a candidate who would shift the country of 100 million people to the left, and one who would keep it on its rocky path toward U.S.-style free-market capitalism.

The outcome will do much to determine the direction of Mexico’s economic development, and with it the number of Mexicans willing to leave their homes and families and seek illegal entry to the United States in pursuit of jobs.

The race between conservative candidate Felipe Calderon and left-wing candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador has been neck and neck for weeks, raising anxiety among many middle- and upper-class Mexicans.

Official campaigning ended Wednesday, and the capital was quiet ahead of the opening of polling stations at 8 a.m. today.

All sales of alcohol were banned for the weekend. Beer and wine disappeared off the shelves, liquor stores closed and hotels locked up their guests’ mini-bars from midnight Friday until midnight tomorrow.

“Obrador is no good. He is a populist, he is against private initiative,” said Jorge Cervantes, a U.S. board-certified surgeon who lives in Mexico City. He was attending a colorful rally for Mr. Calderon last week.

Pamela Starr, a Mexico analyst with the global political risk consultancy Eurasia Group, avoided such stark criticism.

Mexican investors are afraid of Mr. Lopez Obrador’s vision of an activist state, she said, but foreign investors are more sanguine. “Their sense is that Obrador will be a moderate leftist rather than a radical leftist.”

Wearing a white cowboy hat and his party colors of blue and white, Mr. Cervantes, 62, said that a win by Mr. Lopez Obrador would damage the economy and send more Mexicans streaming into the United States.

“If Obrador wins, the 6,000 [U.S. National Guard] soldiers at the border will not be enough” to hold them back, he said.

Mr. Cervantes echoed the widely held fear that Mr. Lopez Obrador would implement his campaign promises to help the needy without making fiscal reforms to finance them.

Mr. Calderon has run on a pro-investment, family-values platform, and in a bitter personal campaign has painted Mr. Lopez Obrador as a radical leftist who would destroy the economy.

Mr. Lopez Obrador and his followers have rejected the accusations, saying the leftist candidate’s aims are to increase employment and raise the standard of living by cutting civil service salaries and redirecting oil profits.

“A profound change is needed,” declared Mr. Lopez Obrador, enveloped by yellow confetti as he arrived at a huge political rally in Mexico City’s downtown Zocalo Square on Wednesday evening.

“We need to renovate the old system of power,” he said, pledging to put the needs of the poor first, create jobs, improve the population’s standard of living and clean up corruption that has festered for decades.

Economic fears

Critics say civil service salaries do not contain enough fat to fund Mr. Lopez Obrador’s plans, and that Mexico’s oil resources are dwindling. But his promises have wide appeal.

“Obrador is seen as a very popular, larger-than-life figure,” said Christopher Sabatini, senior director of policy for the Americas Society/Council of the Americas in New York.

Erica Garcia Pompa, 22, a student of political science at Mexico’s Autonomous Metropolitan University, doubts that Mr. Lopez Obrador — who was mayor of Mexico City until he began his presidential campaign — holds the right management skills.

“If he does everything he has said, we will enter an economic crisis,” Miss Garcia said. “He has said he will increase salaries, lower the cost of electricity, but he has never said where the money will come from.”

Mexico faces major problems. Its economy remains shaky 12 years after it entered the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), and it is squeezed by competition from cheap Chinese goods in its largest export market, the United States.

Drug smuggling, corruption, unemployment and general lawlessness have taken their toll. Forty percent of the country’s population — about 40 million — live below the poverty line.

Mr. Lopez Obrador has attracted millions of supporters with his populist rhetoric and “clean hands” campaign, promising an end to nepotism and corruption.

Divided Congress

Most polls going into today’s election had Mr. Lopez Obrador and Mr. Calderon tied, each with about 35 percent of the vote. Barely one in four planned to vote for Roberto Madrazo, the candidate of the once-omnipotent Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) that governed Mexico for more than 70 years until the National Action Party’s Vicente Fox won the presidency in December 2000.

A legacy of corruption and inability to adapt have weighed down the PRI, but the party remains a powerful national institution and a significant player in the Congress, where it will have a big influence in Mexico’s future.

“The president is very much constrained: His power depends critically on how many deputies and senators he controls,” said Leo Zuckerman, one of the country’s top political analysts.

“If he has a majority in Congress, he is very strong. If not, we will have a divided government and a weak president,” Mr. Zuckerman said.

The PRI is the largest faction in the 500-member Chamber of Deputies and 128-seat Senate, and is expected to remain so after the legislative elections today. But Mr. Lopez Obrador’s Party of the Democratic Revolution likely will make gains, ensuring that no party has an outright majority.

“If Calderon [from the National Action Party] wins, he will try to form a coalition with the PRI. If Mr. Obrador wins, he is going to try to win seats away from the PRI,” Mr. Zuckerman said.

Emigration to the United States has barely figured into the candidates’ speeches, and it has not become a dividing issue.

Rather, both leading candidates have stressed their plans to tackle high unemployment, the lack of effective health, welfare and education programs, and a high crime rate, said Mr. Sabatini of the Americas Society.

“The popular demand is there, and it is vocal,” he said. “Reforming the system is essential. Getting it done is a matter of political will by the government, and its ability to mobilize popular and congressional support.”

Chavez factor

Although the turnout is expected to be as high as 60 percent, late polls showed many voters still undecided, leaving an opening for Mr. Madrazo.

“I am 63 years old, and I have seen presidents since the 1950s,” said Joel Nava Hidalgo as he worked at an old Singer sewing machine in the tiny tailor shop on Monterey Street where he has labored for 30 years.

“We don’t know Lopez Obrador well, but when he was mayor, he put drains in the streets, he built schools and universities, he had a healthy administration, and he plans to cut out the huge pensions to the military and the former presidents,” Mr. Nava Hidalgo said.

“I will vote for Obrador because of what he accomplished and because he is promising more education, health coverage and pensions for seniors.”

But Mr. Nava Hidalgo said that he feared the influence of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez might have “contaminated” Mr. Lopez Obrador.

“A capitalist he is not,” Mr. Nava Hidalgo said. “The free market has invaded us, like the competition from China has displaced small enterprises like me — tailors, cobblers, small farmers. These are abandoning the earth and leaving for America. … But I won’t vote for Calderon because he used the system to benefit himself and his friends.”

All the candidates have flung accusations of corruption, not without justice in a country ranked by Transparency International among the world’s 100 most corrupt. The Berlin-based nonprofit group works to reduce international corruption.

“Calderon seems more honest to me. Obrador? I don’t like him, I feel like he is cheating us, that he will not do what he is promising,” said Erendida Martinez Guzman, 30, as she washed off plastic dishes from her sidewalk food stall.

But her father, Miguel Martinez, who helps run the small lunch bar, said he was undecided. “I will decide on Sunday,” he said.

U.S. relations

Miss Starr, the Eurasia Group analyst, said that neither Mr. Lopez Obrador nor Mr. Calderon would upset relations with the United States.

The leftist candidate has vowed to renegotiate parts of NAFTA to protect Mexico’s corn and bean growers, but Mr. Lopez Obrador, she said, “cares about the Mexican economy, and he understands that means a very good relationship with the United States.”

American investors watching the vote from the sidelines are taking a wait-and-see attitude.

“I think people are taking a step back,” said Michael Jacobs, a New York businessman who has worked in Mexico for 12 years. “They want to see the dust settle and what course Mexico will take.”

Mexico has welcomed foreign investment in the past decade, he said, and that is not expected to change.

“It is difficult to separate policy from campaign rhetoric,” said Mr. Jacobs, who invested millions of dollars in the Mexican apparel industry before switching to medical research. “If I want to attract you, I am going to tell you what you want to hear.

“My sense is that there is a lot of rhetoric, which is part of a campaign strategy. But whoever wins, if they keep their campaign promises, perhaps there will be radical changes. If not, it will be business as usual.”

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