- The Washington Times - Monday, June 26, 2006

MEXICO CITY

Democracy has been good to Mexico. It shows in shiny new cars bought with low-interest loans, government-subsidized housing projects stacked like dominoes along hillsides and a raucous political system in which everyone has a voice.

Gone are the rigged elections, the rubber-stamp Congress, the boom-and-bust peso crises. Over the past decade, Mexico’s political evolution has broken up monopolies, made politicians more responsive to their public and attracted foreign investors ranging from Citibank to Krispy Kreme Doughnuts.

The era was ushered in by Vicente Fox’s victory in the 2000 presidential election, the most democratic in Mexican history. Six years later, as he prepares to step down, he promises the election of his successor on Sunday will be freer and cleaner still.

But democracy also has had its dark side: congressional chaos that stalled needed reforms and left a nation full of disgruntled voters, some of whom are nostalgic for the old authoritarian system that at least got things done.

In the final week of campaigning — amid the attack ads, high-octane rhetoric and streets blitzed with election banners — voters are torn evenly between Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, a leftist who offers himself as a savior of the poor; and Felipe Calderon, a conservative who trusts the markets to keep living standards rising. Polls place them neck and neck.

Left or right?

The vote will determine whether Mexico joins South America’s leftward trend, or deepens market reforms and its close alliance with the United States. Whoever wins will have to work hard to get the undivided attention of a U.S. president preoccupied with Iraq, and then, two years later, start afresh with a new administration in Washington.

Most voters have been following the World Cup soccer tournament more closely than the campaign. By now, Mexicans have experienced enough democracy and heard enough promises from politicians to be blase.

Six years ago, national euphoria greeted Mr. Fox’s victory, which dealt a sudden, surprising end to 71 years of rule by the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). Mexicans thought anything was possible. Many waited for the country to finally trade its riches — oil and mineral reserves, miles of breathtaking coastline, an underused work force — for full membership among First World nations.

Reality has disappointed them. The economy is stable, thanks to a strong central bank and Mexico’s integration into the world economy, but Mr. Fox failed to create the millions of jobs he promised and wages are still too low for many to make a living. The minimum wage is the equivalent of $4 per day.

Constitutionally barred from seeking re-election, Mr. Fox plans to retire to his ranch in central Mexico after his replacement is sworn in Dec. 1.

Rivals play rough

Enter Mr. Calderon of Mr. Fox’s National Action Party and Mr. Lopez Obrador of the Democratic Revolution Party, polar opposites waging a no-holds-barred battle amid charges of influence-peddling and stealing government funds for their campaigns.

Mr. Calderon says Mr. Lopez Obrador would be dangerous for Mexico, and likens him to populist Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.

Mr. Lopez Obrador says Mr. Calderon, a bespectacled career politician who served as Mr. Fox’s energy secretary, represents more of the same ineffective bureaucracy that caters to the rich.

With the campaign slogan “Smile: We’re going to win,” Mr. Lopez Obrador, who gained popularity as Mexico City mayor, has crisscrossed the country, adorned with flowers and basking in the adulation of thousands of supporters.

Mr. Calderon has grown from stiff to commanding yet easygoing, greeted by supporters who raise both arms in the air, miming his “clean hands” slogan.

Some fear violence if there is not a clear winner, as happened in 1994 after Mr. Lopez Obrador narrowly lost the governor’s seat of his native Tabasco state to Roberto Madrazo. Mr. Lopez Obrador refused to accept the results and began governing from the streets, undermining Mr. Madrazo’s already weak government.

Mr. Madrazo is now the PRI presidential candidate and trails third in the polls.

Folksy Lopez Obrador

Mr. Lopez Obrador, 52, is quick to blame his losses on secretive plots by unnamed dark forces, and to fight back unconventionally. As mayor a year ago, when a legal dispute threatened to keep him from running for the presidency, he mobilized millions to protest and refused to accept a court order to stop construction of a road.

He won. Under intense public pressure, the Fox administration dropped the case.

The folksy early riser is famous for holding pre-dawn press conferences in a city where government workers often don’t arrive until midday. George Grayson, a Mexico specialist at the College of William & Mary in Virginia, says the recently widowed Mr. Lopez Obrador is an “everyman” for Mexico.

“He doesn’t just represent the masses; he incarnates their struggle,” Mr. Grayson said. “Just as they have to fight for every inch they gain, he is there fighting. So he is their champion.”

Many among Mexico’s elite worry that Mr. Lopez Obrador would bankrupt the nation with his extravagant pension and public works proposals. Enrique Krauze, one of Mexico’s foremost historians, goes further, saying the candidate has a streak of authoritarianism rooted in Tabasco’s take-no-prisoners politics.

“What is worrisome about Lopez Obrador is Lopez Obrador himself,” Mr. Krauze wrote in his magazine, Letras Libres. “He does not represent a modern left. … He represents an authoritarian left.”

Warnings overblown

Others, however, say the danger is imaginary and that comparisons to Mr. Chavez are overblown, noting he has moved closer to the center since starting to campaign. They liken him to Brazil’s fiery union leader Luis Inacio Lula da Silva. Investors feared Mr. Lula da Silva would default on Brazil’s foreign debt and plunge the nation into an economic meltdown, but instead, he embraced conservative economic policies that pleased Wall Street and stoked a strong comeback for Latin America’s largest economy.

One thing seems certain. Although some voters may miss the PRI’s can-do ways, Mexico doesn’t seem ready to give the party a second chance.

Some wonder whether it will even survive the election. Founded in 1929 to unite the country after Mexico’s revolution, the PRI ruled by accepting all ideologies. It catered to unions, the rich, the poor — anyone who would support it. Its platform was simple: Stay in power.

Now, with a strong, three-party system, the PRI seems lost. Some of its top officials have snubbed their own leader, Mr. Madrazo, for Mr. Calderon or Mr. Lopez Obrador.

Whoever wins faces a big challenge: Mexico, Latin America’s second most populated country with 105 million people, is still caught between the Third and First worlds. Peasants in remote mountain villages survive on less than $1 a day while steel-and-glass office buildings rise like monuments to capitalism along Mexico City’s famous Reforma Avenue.

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