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Column 040504 Luken

Monday, April 5, 2004

 

The Castaņeda factor in Mexico’s presidential equation

 

By Carlos Luken

 

Mexico’s impetuous 2006 presidential race just got more exciting, with former Foreign Relations (SRE) secretary Jorge Castaņeda announcing on March 25 that he will run for president.

 

Castaņeda [50], a university professor who is considered one of Mexico’s brightest minds, is the son of a former foreign minister. Once one of the closest — and most controversial — advisors of President Vicente Fox, in January of 2003 Castaņeda resigned his cabinet post in frustration due largely to a lack of progress with his “whole enchilada” immigration strategy.

 

Undeniably Castaņeda is a maverick — a left-leaning intellectual who has turned moderate. While he was SRE secretary Castaņeda especially annoyed associates when he encouraged Fox to adopt a tough diplomatic position against Cuba.

 

More recently he raised eyebrows when he denounced a lack of imagination in the Fox administration and called the Mexican political system dysfunctional.

 

With more than two years remaining before the presidential election, Castaņeda joins an already crowded field of would-be candidates. National Action Party (PAN) Senator Carlos Medina Plasencia has announced his pre-candidacy, while interior minister Santiago Creel is seen as the front-runner for the party’s nomination. First lady Marta Fox has also expressed considerable interest in running, among others.

 

Other anxious candidates include Roberto Madrazo, president of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, along with Ricardo Monreal (governor of Zacatecas) and Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (mayor of Mexico City), the latter two members of the Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD). Until recently Lopez Obrador was ahead in most polls, however his administration has become tarnished by corruption scandals. As such, one respected newspaper poll now shows Creel at 33 percent, with Lopez Obrador in a dead heat with Madrazo each at 30 percent. Castaneda is fourth with 6 percent.

 

Castaņeda’s candidacy is exceptional as he is a self-nominee. A leftwing independent outsider, Castaņeda has never been elected to public office, and while he describes himself as a “civilian candidate” Castaņeda is discarding the support of Mexico’s big three parties — who he accuses of kidnapping democracy.

 

As well, in a recent interview Castaņeda insisted he would not be a fourth party alternative, but rather the first non-party option.  However this is contrary to Mexico’s electoral law that gives registered parties alone the right to nominate candidates for election.

 

Castaņeda is now seeking court action to block the registered party provision, however if he is unsuccessful smaller parties can be expected to beat a path to his door. This will be especially true if congress passes anticipated electoral reforms, as one proposal calls for the current 2 percent requisite for a party to keep its registry to go to 4 or maybe 5 percent.  By himself Castaņeda can be expected to bring a party that percentage minimum.

 

But Castaņeda's apparent weaknesses, in distancing himself from political parties, could also be a plus. Mexican voters today are outraged with scandalous privileged politicians who indulge in corrupt activities, and with their endless partisan debates while the country remains stagnant, and poverty and unemployment continue to grow.

 

Castaņeda is counting on the electorate’s frustration with the current political system. The 2003-midterm elections were decided by approximately 42 percent of the country’s 61 million registered voters, as citizen frustration has made abstention Mexico’s electoral majority. Well over 30 million constituents refused to cast their ballots last July.

 

Considering the math, Castaņeda’s strategy in targeting absent and uncommitted voters appears to be intelligent. Those registered voters may in fact amount to as many as 40 million persons, or close to two-thirds of the electorate.

 

As with other successful independent candidacies, Castaņeda will not necessarily need a formal party constituency or hard voters. Nor will he need to win an absolute majority to be elected as he can do so by splitting the opposition vote, and by inspiring part of the absent, non-committed and censure voters to join his cause. Given the possible scenarios, PRI, PAN and PRD intellectuals and middle class members could also be attracted to Castaņeda’s political movement, leaving the remaining constituencies to divide their traditional share of votes among the big three parties.

 

After evaluating Mexico’s existing political situation, Castaņeda’s possibilities of winning the presidency in 2006 should not be naively discarded. True the probabilities are dim but it is not impossible. As Castaņeda brings originality to the race and continues to challenge the status quo, many voters will welcome his maverick and independent position. Still, with elections two years away it is too early to predict any such trends — much less results.

___________________

Carlos Luken (a www.mexidata.info columnist), a Mexicali, Baja California, based businessman, is the principal in I.L.C. Corporate Real Estate, a project development firm, and I.L.C. Corporate Services, a consulting practice that provides business management, consultancy and lobbying services to global corporations and government agencies. He can be reached via e-mail at ilc@computec.com.mx.