- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Watching Felipe Calderon brush past previous front-runner Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador in the Mexican presidential race is reason for cautious optimism. What appeared to be a likely win for the leftist Mr. Lopez Obrador has become a closely contested race, with Mr. Calderon now leading in polls that showed him well behind as recently as January.

One way Mr. Calderon has bolstered his support is by shifting his policies to the left: replacing small-government plans with promises to maintain, even expand, the welfare network built by current president Vicente Fox. If the negative and personal nature of Mr. Calderon’s recent campaign against Mr. Lopez Obrador is offputting, the shift in popular opinion caused by the ads, which frequently draw parallels between Mr. Lopez Obrador and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, is reassuring. The parallels are warranted, and the reaction is just what the United States should have hoped. Apparently, and to much relief, the specter of Mr. Chavez is not welcomed by the majority of Mexicans.

Latin America has clearly made, in the popular expression, a turn to the left. But this description is too vague in its failure to distinguish between the left-leaning governments — such as Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva’s Brazil — typified by strong commitments to democracy, the free market and increased trade and the authoritarian regimes — such as Mr. Chavez’s Venezuela and Evo Morales’ Bolivia — that have, under the guise of populism, consolidated political power and state control over natural resources. And it seems to be with the latter, authoritarian leftists that Mr. Lopez Obrador would like to throw in his lot.

Mr. Fox’s victory in 2000 ended 70 continuous years of rule by the Revolutionary Institutional Party (PRI). One-party rule did not, however, result in seven decades of policy parity. Major reforms in the 1980s opened the statist Mexican economy, with the 1994 enactment of NAFTA marking a landmark break from the PRI model that included nationalizing foreign oil interests in 1938.

Mr. Lopez Obrador, by all indications, would buck close relations with the United States and take Mexico in a direction similar to Bolivia under Mr. Morales. The United States will have to accept that nothing it can do will boost Mr. Calderon’s candidacy, and several policies — including good immigration policies — can actually harm it. Washington cannot let this fact unduly influence U.S. policy, however, no matter how distressing the prospect of a Lopez Obrador government on the border.

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