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Feature 061812 Paterson

Monday, June 18, 2012

Two Leading the Mexican Presidential Race into Home Stretch

By Kent Paterson

With two weeks remaining before Mexicans elect new leaders on July 1, the presidential race appears to have narrowed between Enrique Peña Nieto of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), and Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador of a three-party coalition united in the Progressive Movement. If the polls and the word on the street are accurate, Mexicans will forsake the opportunity to elect the nation's first woman president, Josefina Vazquez Mota of President Calderon's conservative National Action Party. A fourth candidate, the National Alliance's Gabriel Quadri, is polling in the single digits.

The last days of the 2012 races are characterized by rising tension, intense bouts of campaigning, media scandals and battles, and the unpredictable impact of a surprise element that could go down as the most significant development of the electoral year: the emergence of a new youth movement demanding media and democratic reforms.

Millions of second and first time voters in the 18-24 age category could be the decisive force in the 2012 elections, according to Fernando Rivera Ibarra, a former citizen councilor for the Federal Electoral Institute and a political analyst in the central Mexican city of Aguascalientes.

"Many of them are going to go out and vote," Rivera said in an interview with Frontera NorteSur. "It is not known how many, but they have awakened through the (protest) movement. Many are going to vote consciously. It is an unstoppable movement. The parties can't contaminate it."

On and above the streets, the candidates and their supporters are readily visible. In Ciudad Juarez recently, as the four presidential contenders prepared for their second and final nationally televised debate, the PRI and allied PVEM (Green Party) deployed dozens of campaign workers attired in alliance t-shirts at the intersection of Francisco Villa and 16 de Septiembre in the border city's downtown core. Well-stocked with supplies, the workers passed out literature, bumper stickers and plastic bags promoting Peña Nieto and other PRI candidates.

Like other Mexican cities, Ciudad Juarez's skyline has been transformed by huge political billboards, especially those supporting Peña Nieto and the PRI. For his part, Gabriel Quadri has appropriated the figure of Mahatma Gandhi, covering a Ciudad Juarez billboard with an image of the Indian and world pacifist leader along with a message for peace.

The billboards, bus posters and political trinkets, not to mention campaign staff, all cost handsome sums of money, the full expenditures of which are not clear at this point in the electoral game.

Insisting that he is at the head of the pack, Lopez Obrador is maintaining a grueling, two state tour each day before June 27, when he plans on closing his campaign with a massive march and rally in Mexico City. Last week, the former Mexico City mayor touched down in the drought-stricken state of Aguascalientes, where he delivered a long speech to hundreds of supporters gathered in the capital city's main plaza. Rural and urban residents, young and old, professionals and students, all formed an enthusiastic audience that was draped in the yellow, orange and red colors of the Progressive Movement parties and kept on its feet by the cumbia sounds of Lopez Obrador's Morena movement anthem.

Under a blazing, mid-day sun, Lopez Obrador countered criticisms that he is a dangerous radical. He repeated a controversial pledge to implement an austere government by slashing the salaries of high federal officials, some of whom he claimed make about $50,000 per month and earn even more than their Brazilian counterparts, while cutting back on foreign travel by officials.

"We aren't going to lower the salaries of the majority of government workers, who earn little. This is not the problem," the candidate said. "It's shameful when you ask for (an official) and are told 'no, he's in Brazil or at a congress in France.'"

The undisputed leader of Mexico's electoral left, Lopez Obrador reiterated that a frontal attack on government corruption and wasteful spending will provide the funds necessary to pay for new programs to rescue the countryside, lower energy costs, increase pensions, support students and generate jobs. "If there is no work, it affects everyone," he argued. "The principal problem in Mexico is employment." After listening to the presidential hopeful's promises, Aguascalientes mother Andrea Martinez said she liked the proposals for more educational grants and state provision of school uniforms. "It's a good thing to support students and young people so they don't fall into delinquency," Martinez said.

In terms of the campaign's final stages, Lopez Obrador warned of the intensification of negative campaigning and attempts to buy the election, specifically by means of trading budget-busting household supplies, construction materials and farm animals for votes. Expressing confidence that the Progressive Movement in Aguascalientes had its bases covered, Lopez Obrador nevertheless urged his supporters to carefully monitor the voting booths on July 1.

"If we don't take care of the polls, we leave open the possibility that the will of the people won't be respected," he said. Sprinkling his speech with references to revered Mexican President Benito Juarez, Lopez Obrador almost completely refrained from attacking his opponents and only made a brief mention of Peña Nieto.

"This movement for transformation is historic," he declared. "We have the opportunity to change the direction of this country." The unsuccessful 2006 presidential candidate was accompanied on stage in Aguascalientes by local candidates for the federal Congress, which turns over its membership this year, and by Labor Party founder Alberto Anaya and Citizen Movement party leader General Armando Lopez.

In Aguascalientes at least, Lopez Obrador faces an uphill battle. Currently governed by the PRI, the state administration of Governor Carlos Lozano de la Torre has been particularly active, helping to revitalize the capital city's downtown and presiding over the announcement of the planned opening of a second Nissan factory and its thousands of new jobs.

"They are betting everything on Nissan," said analyst Rivera. "If another tsunami hits Japan, it will affect the whole state."

Standing in the shade off to the side of Lopez Obrador's speech, two young women acknowledged that the candidate had his share of supporters. But they quickly added that the other parties had even more people on their sides. Both said they would vote for Peña Nieto. Local resident Erika Rosales cited Peña Nieto's positions on senior pensions, computer education for children and insecurity. "I like his proposals and his ideas," Rosales said.

The day after Lopez Obrador spoke in Aguascalientes, the PAN'S Josefina Vazquez assembled thousands of supporters in the same city, according to media estimates.

Lopez Obrador's opponents are taking his challenge very seriously. Only hours after he departed Aguascalientes for the neighboring state of San Luis Potosi, a woman dashed into a popular downtown restaurant and distributed free copies of a glossy newspaper splashed with expensive color print. Usually going for four pesos, the weekly tabloid Ahi contained gaudy print attacking Lopez Obrador and comparing him with the late popular comedian Cantinflas. The same publication included positive pieces about Peña Nieto, featuring a center-fold of the young-looking candidate with his soap opera star wife Angelica Rivera and press chief David Lopez.

Yet Lopez Obrador has managed to shift the bulk of media attention to his campaign -- for better or for worse. In an often critical manner, the networks are focused on proposals emanating from the standard-bearer of the center-left, but the discussion is undoubtedly getting the candidate's platform out to the public. And in a possible media coup, the Lopez Obrador campaign is running an unprecedented television spot that has popular Mexico City mayor Marcelo Ebrard pledging to bring "serenity" to the country when he becomes Lopez Obrador's Interior Minister.

Fernando Rivera predicted a very close race to the finish between Lopez Obrador and Peña Nieto. Yet the victorious candidate is unlikely to have either a 50 percent-plus ballot majority or control of the new Congress, he added. "Whoever wins will have to be a great negotiator and have a good team of lobbyists," Rivera said.

Frontera NorteSur (FNS)
Center for Latin American and Border Studies
New Mexico State University
Las Cruces, New Mexico

Kent Paterson is the editor of Frontera NorteSur.  Reprinted with authorization from Frontera NorteSur, a free, on-line, U.S.-Mexico border news source.

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