Ten Reasons to Watch Mexico's Presidential Election

This Sunday, Mexico will choose a new president in an election with broad implications not only for the direction of the country, but also for its relations with the United States and its neighbors to the south.

The race pits center-left candidate Andres Manuel López Obrador, often called "AMLO" for short, against center-right Christian Democrat Felipe Calderón Hinosa. Obrador led most polls through March, when an aggressive campaign brought Calderón ahead in some surveys by a slim margin. The Los Angeles Times reports that the two are now in a statistical dead-heat (Obrador had a two-point lead in two major polls released last Friday, but that's within the margin of error for both polls.)

Calderón is a member of the National Action Party (PAN), the party of outgoing President Vicente Fox. He served previously as Fox's energy minister. Obrador's Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD) leads a coalition that includes several small parties of the left.

Robert Madrazo, the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) candidate trails a distant third.

Also at stake are 628 seats in Mexico's bicameral legislature, as well as the government of Mexico City.

Here are 10 reasons to watch this race:

10: The democratic revolution continues

The PRI held a virtual monopoly on power for over 70 years, until electoral reforms in the 1990s brought competitive elections to Mexico. Vicente Fox's win in 2000 was the first for an opposition candidate.

9: In terms of running an election, Mexico puts us to shame

A close look reveals much for Americans to admire. Election day is Sunday -- as opposed to a work day -- a long-sought goal for electoral reformers here in the United States. In 2000, Mexicans turned out at a 13 percent higher rate than Americans. It will be interesting to see how much of that difference was due to the novelty of the country's first truly open race.

An independent electoral commission will run the vote instead of partisan hacks. No Florida 2000, no Ohio 2004.

No Mexican will have to cast a ballot on paperless electronic voting machines. Paper ballots will be used in a uniform nationwide system. Mexican voters are issued fraud-resistant ID cards

8: Campaigns receive public financing

One of the most important reforms of the past decade was the advent of extensive public financing of campaigns, significantly lowering the impact of special interest cash. All major parties received $60 million (U.S. dollars) in public funds for the campaign, and total spending is capped at $80 million.

7: The electoral institutions are squeaky clean

Observers from across the political spectrum have lauded the efforts of the Federal Election Institute (IFE) to ensure a clean vote. José Salafranca, head of the EU's observer mission, told Inter Press Service that Mexico's electoral institutions are now among the most reliable and trustworthy in the world. Chuck Collins, a senior scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies, told me by phone from his Oaxaca home that there's a sense of calm leading up to the polls, a sea-change in a country where elections have often been marked by blatant fraud and political violence.

But Mexico's party operatives may not be as clean as its institutions. The Washington Post reported that independent election observers have accused all three parties of buying votes, especially in poor rural communities. Federal election officials, while acknowledging that vote-buying is an issue, say it won't impact the outcome. Nonetheless, expect aggressive challenges if the tally is as close as polls suggest, especially if Obrador wins by a narrow margin.

The monitors say that the PRI has been the most aggressive in vote-buying and a surprise win by Madrazo -- who trailed the leaders by 7-9 points in the latest polls -- would likely spur popular protests or strikes.

6: This is Mexico's first wired campaign

This will be the first campaign in which the internet will play a significant role. About 20 million of Mexico's 100 million plus residents have internet access, and the Associated Press reports that both "campaigns are bombarding voters with online games, cartoons and attack emails." Calderón, in addition to meeting with Republican political operative Dick Morris -- a story that received a lot of attention in the Mexican media at the time -- reportedly consulted briefly with MoveOn.org about the campaign's internet strategy (it's unclear how extensive either of these consultations were).

5: There will be no Swiftboating

This is also the first campaign in which the attack ad has dominated the debate. Both candidates have traded charges of corruption, and some analysts fear that voters may be turned off by the negativity, as well as by a lack of faith that either candidate can kick-start Mexico's moribund economy. It's uncertain who would be favored by a low turnout.

But, unlike the United States, where the only thing that deters candidates from blatant lying is the fear their strategy may backfire in the press, there's a limit to how far one can go in Mexico, as both camps discovered. As El Universal reported, the Federal Election Institute "has waded into the fray involving the three top candidates, ruling that some television spots are too false to be on the air and others simply too rude." It also "enforced an order of silence on President Vicente Fox, telling him not to interfere with the campaign, even to help his party's candidate."

On two occasions, the IFE put the kibosh on ads calling Obrador "a danger for Mexico," saying they amounted to defamation. They also banned ads from Obrador's camp calling Calderón a liar. Karl Rove would be appalled.

4: It's a real choice -- no DemPublicans here

The leading candidates couldn't be more different. Calderón, a Harvard-educated economist, is a technocrat, a policy wonk, while Obrador is often described as a fiery rhetorician. Obrador, who became a household name when he was beaten bloody by police while protesting for indigenous rights, accuses Calderón of catering to the "privileges" of a powerful oligarchy. Calderón in turn warns that Obrador is a "leftist horror show."

Both candidates have made the requisite campaign promise to fight corruption in the government and the federal police. Calderón has campaigned as a tough-on-crime candidate more broadly.

3: The shocking truth: There's more than one way to run an economy

Mexicans will enjoy something else American voters don't see: two distinctly different visions of how to run an economy.

According to a background brief by Mark Weisbrot and Luis Sandoval of the Center for Economic Policy and Research (PDF):

[Calderón has] emphasized the government's achievements with regard to economic stability, low inflation, and attractiveness to foreign investors, arguing that the country should continue along the path of reforms implemented over the last 25 years and by the previous administration. López Obrador ... [has] focused on poverty, advocating a greater government role to help the poor, redistribute income, invest in infrastructure and create employment.
Calderón is running on macroeconomic stability and warns that a vote for Obrador is a vote for stagflation and economic ruin.

Obrador, who created a pension for elderly residents of Mexico City, has said that he'll take a cue from Franklin Delano Roosevelt to get Mexicans working and the economy moving. According to the Washington Post, "López Obrador's economics team has developed a blueprint for what they call the 'Mexican New Deal,'" a plank that they claim will create millions of jobs "by undertaking huge public works projects, including a railroad network, vast housing developments, ports and timber replanting." Obrador has promised to renegotiate NAFTA if elected.

2: Then there's immigration ...

The migration issue itself will not play a prominent role in the election. The three top candidates are all opposed to militarizing the border, and all three agree that the sluggish Mexican economy -- which, over the past 20 years hasn't created enough jobs to keep up with a growing population -- is at the root of the issue.

Calderón is promising to maintain the economic status quo of the last 25 years, but Weisbrot and Sandoval note that while Mexico's per capita GDP grew by 99 percent between 1960 and 1980, it grew by only 15 percent from 1980 to 2000. In the first five years of this decade, Mexicans have seen their economy grow by an anemic 2 percent. As I've argued in the past, there's only so much that our own immigration policies can achieve as long as the economic "push factors" that drive immigration prevail. If Obrador's New Deal were to live up to his campaign's hype, it would have a huge impact on the number of people entering the United States from Mexico -- far greater than any policy that might be cooked up in Washington.

Which brings us to the top reason to watch this race ...

1: An Obrador win will drive Bush and his right-wing cronies batty!

The demonization of Obrador has already begun. The conservative Times of London warns, ominously, of a "Mexican standoff" as a "firebrand of the left edges ahead in polls." After his meeting with Calderón, Dick Morris returned to the United States and penned an op-ed titled "Menace in Mexico" for Rupert Murdoch's New York Post.

Calderón has said repeatedly during the campaign that Obrador will join an anti-American axis led by the right's perennial bogeyman, Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez, and the charge is likely to stick in the conservative noise machine here in the United States. (Even the Washington Post, traditionally hostile to any Latin American leader to the left of Augusto Pinochet, dismissed the charge, noting that Obrador "has rarely traveled abroad and has little interest in foreign affairs.")

Significantly, an Obrador win would leave only Colombia, among all of the major states of Latin America, in Bush's camp. That alone makes this race worth the price of admission.

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