Friday, March 30, 2012

Mexico's presidential campaign begins

The race to July 1 is finally underway

After months of pre-campaign tight-rope walking designed to keep candidates within the narrow confines of the country's rigid election laws, Mexico's Big Event of 2012 began in earnest at 12:01 a.m. today. The nominees fanned out across a divided nation to address cheering supporters, while party bosses and political stage managers officially sounded the clarion call to battle. The candidates face 90 days of intense trail-stumping just ahead, as they focus on delivering core messages and sound bites to the anticipated 80 million Mexicans who will go to the polls on Sunday, July 1.

In the short term the race will merely determine who occupies Los Pinos, Mexico's White House, for the next 72 months. In the long term the consequences for this nation of over 110 million may be far greater. Mexico is locked in a death struggle with international narcotics cartels, described by the country's 2010 Nobel Prize winner in Literature as "a monstrosity, powerful, enormously rich and without the slightest scruples." Few will dispute that domestic security -- the drug war -- is the overriding issue in the 2012 campaign, but the candidates disagree significantly on the best method for waging that war. Mexicans are exhausted by 64 months of vicious combat which has left over 50,000 persons dead, with no end in sight. The so-called National Security Strategy -- a plan to defeat the cartels with the armed forces -- was adopted by outgoing president Felipe Calderón in December 2006. Perhaps popular in its early years, it has become less so with the passage of time and the mounting death toll. The ultimate question is whether voters in 2012 will opt to stay the course with a candidate who is clearly identified with the Calderón approach, or switch to someone -- anyone -- who may offer a competing plan.

The parties, the candidates and the polls
Mexico has three major political parties. Each has fielded a candidate for the presidency in 2012. Front runner Enrique Peña Nieto, a 45 year old attorney and former governor of the State of Mexico, is the standard bearer of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). PRI ran Mexico for 70 years, some say controlling the country with an iron fist. The party is described as left-center in orientation, but the characterization provides little assistance if one is tying to compare PRI ideas and policies with those of left-center parties in Europe, for instance. PRI was tossed out of Los Pinos in 2000 by a political coalition led by former president Vicente Fox. It lost again to Calderón six years ago, who himself narrowly won the 2006 election by a mere half percent, the closest such race in Mexican history.

PRI has placed all of its hopes this year on Peña Nieto, a flashy and effective campaigner who emphasizes style over content. It's difficult to say what the candidate believes in or advocates, because he rarely delves into specifics. That may be a calculated strategy. Conventional wisdom is that millions of Mexicans are hungry for a return of PRI -- the party of their parents and grandparents -- and are not particularly concerned about what their nominee may do once he takes office. The enigmatic Enrique Peña Nieto probably hopes to avoid debating the issues in detail (not his forte) and wrap himself in the red, white and green tricolors of the Institutional Revolutionary Party instead. He well understands that this year's election, to a large extent, is a referendum on Calderón's drug war.

Josefina Vázquez Mota, a former cabinet secretary in the administrations of both Fox (Social Development) and Calderón (Public Education), and an economist by education, is the nominee of the National Action Party (PAN). PAN is labeled the center-right party in Mexico, but again, the term has little utility. An argument could be made that PAN is more closely identified with Mexico's powerful Roman Catholic Church than either of its two primary competitors, but 83% of the nation is Catholic, and church members are found across the political spectrum. Vázquez Mota, 51, is the first woman to represent a major Mexican political party in a presidential contest. An independent voice not afraid to speak up to party bosses (including Calderón, who allegedly preferred another candidate to represent PAN this year), Josefina's calling card stresses two points: support for the use of military forces in the drug war, and enhanced educational opportunities for the young.

Andrés Manuel López Obrador, 59, is the candidate of the Democratic Revolution Party (PRD). A former governor of Mexico's Federal District from 2000-2006, López Obrador nearly pulled off a miracle in the last election, coming within a few hundred thousand votes of snatching victory from Felipe Calderón. Indeed, PRD supporters who alleged electoral fraud in 2006 still refer to their nominee as "the legitimate president of Mexico." Obrador is from steamy Villahermosa in Tabasco state, and has been involved in grass roots political movements for decades. He began his career as a young PRI operative in 1976, but later abandoned it to help form a series of new parties which eventually morphed into today's PRD. The party and its candidate are invariably referred to as Mexico's far left political voice, and justifiably or not López Obrador is portrayed as an enthusiastic supporter of abortion and same-sex marriage (a crowd of pro-lifers who turned out for Pope Benedict's open-air Mass in Guanajuato last Sunday booed the PRD nominee, who was invited along with the other candidates). But above all López Obrador speaks for Mexico's economically disadvantaged -- and there are plenty of them to speak for. About half of this very young nation (the median age is just 26) live in moderate to severe poverty, and the nominee demands a proportionate share of budget appropriations for every single one of them. Such comments send shivers down the backs of Mexico's middle class and businessmen.

There is a fourth candidate who should be noted. Gabriel Quadri de la Torre is the still almost unknown nominee of the Partido Nueva Alianza, or New Alliance Party. Quadri is a 57 year old politician who was trained as a civil engineer in Mexico, and later went on to earn a master's degree and Ph.D. in economics at the University of Texas. He's an outspoken environmentalist in a country where the topic probably should be addressed by candidates far more than it is. But Quadri appears to have no chance of winning. Despite the fact that he is a well educated man whose academic credentials far outstrip those of his three opponents, the PNA nominee barely shows up as a faint blip on the political radar screen. Polls show only token support for his candidacy, usually around one percent.

Speaking of presidential preference polls, Mexico conducts them almost daily -- or so it seems. The obvious and unmistakable conclusion is that it's Enrique Peña Nieto's race to lose. He's just as solidly in first place today as he was six months ago, with Josefina trailing in second place and Manuel López Obrador far off the back in third place (and the even darker horse Gabriel Quadri barely on the charts). But the surveys also show a large -- and growing -- number of undecideds, perhaps as many as 30-35% of all eligible voters who say they plan to cast ballots on July 1. Those folks could spoil one or two planned election night parties, as I see it. Last evening a long time and well-placed PRI campaign boss here in Yucatán state told me he expects Peña Nieto to win, but narrowly so -- less than ten percent, he thinks. The polls are likely to be all over the lot in the weeks ahead. And as the candidates frequently remind the press, the only poll that counts is the one which will be taken that first Sunday in July (as the U.S. prepares to celebrate its birthday).

The challenges each candidate faces
Each of the three major candidates is carrying his or her own personal or party baggage which will have to be acknowledged and dealt with. Here's the way I see it:

PRI is portrayed (and regarded by many) as a good old boy's club determined to drag Mexico backwards into a dark era -- one writer described it as "the perfect dictatorship" -- when political power was consolidated in the hands of a few and all others blindly obeyed. Adherents of this school hold PRI responsible for the unchecked rise of the drug cartels over 30, 40 or maybe even 50 years (if one includes predecessor criminal organizations). In a New York Times interview last September which infuriated PRI bosses, Calderón went further. He suggested that the party and its then-leading candidate -- Enrique Peña Nieto -- would "crawl into bed" with the drug cartels and allow them to go right on with "business as usual," as they allegedly did under PRI governments for decades. Openly stated or not, that's the concern of more than a few in this election year.

Peña Nieto hasn't helped himself by playing "mum's the word" on his drug war plan. The PRI nominee has told different audiences different things at different times. In early March he told Vice President Joe Biden that while he's committed to fighting the cartels, he would not pursue "the same strategy" as the current government. Presumably that implies withdrawing military forces from the battle (and there is increasing evidence that is exactly what he has in mind). But the lack of candor and clarity on the critical campaign issue has confused and worried people on both sides of the border. Coupled with several public relations gaffs last fall which left Peña Nieto wide open to the allegation that he possesses less than a stellar intellect, the nominee was placed on the defensive months before the formal campaign had even begun. His very messy love life -- what we know of it so far -- has also provided endless fodder for Mexican political commentators (see the links below).

All of Josefina Vázquez Mota's challenges could perhaps be folded into just one. Many voters will ask her, "Sixty-three months and 50,000 deaths later, why should we stick with your party's strategy for waging the drug war, since you cannot tell us how or when that war will be won? We've given PAN 12 years in Los Pinos, why isn't it time to give someone else a chance?" Unless Josefina develops and delivers a forceful campaign theme which acknowledges that question and answers it convincingly, her candidacy is likely to remain a footnote in Mexican political history. "Stay the course" is a tired phrase in American politics which has been relied upon by too many U.S. presidential candidates over the years, but it may be the best/only option for Vázquez Mota in Mexico's 2012 campaign.

Finally, the public relations task that lays before Andrés Manuel López Obrador is also easy to identify, although far less easy to resolve. The PRD candidate is viewed by many, especially Mexico's middle class and businesses, as not just another garden variety leftist, but rather as a strident radical. López Obrador promised months ago that in the first year of his presidency he would deliver seven million new jobs to unemployed Mexican youth -- four million jobs in the first six weeks. In a national economy steaming considerably slower in 2012 than in 2011, how will López Obrador possibly pay the tab for his extraordinary jobs guarantee? He said last year that "it's already in the budget" he'll propose if elected, so now the candidate will have to start discussing uncomfortable details as he campaigns around the country. Someone or some groups will surely feel the budget ax. Most critically, the man from Tabasco must shed his Robin Hood image. Mexico's struggling middle and lower middle classes have worked hard to get what little they have in life, and the majority of them are not interested in PRD plans for direct or indirect wealth redistribution.

The PRD nominee has also promised to halve the salaries of top government officials, including his own as president (probably a good idea, but it won't make a lot of folks in Mexico City happy), and to remove the Mexican army entirely from the drug war within six months, "return it to its quarters" and replace it with local and state police. Obrador has even called for "fewer bullets and more hugs" for young criminal offenders. Shall I go on?

Twenty years ago the American novelist Cormac McCarthy wrote a quick best seller which helped to skyrocket his literary career. All the Pretty Horses was set in the Mexico of 1950. A key character in the story - the most interesting by far - is a refined, intelligent Mexican woman of almost 80, who reflects with some bitterness on the difficult cards which life has dealt her. In a story line she tells the protagonist, an American boy of 16 wise in his own way, "In Mexico, people are mad for society and mad for politics." Whether the former is still true half a century later may be debated (I believe it is true). But about the latter there can be little doubt. Mexico is a political and politicized nation, where many worship at the altar of ideologies which often are not well understood, and frequently bear little relation to reality. This year, the stakes are higher than ever for all concerned.

Apr. 4: The four presidential candidates will debate on May 6, it was announced today. A second and final debate will be held during the first two weeks of June. López Obrador, who argued for multiple debates, said he understands why Peña Nieto is not interested in the proposal. The PRI candidate knows that he's far out in front of the pack, so why risk things by speaking in public, said AMLO.

May 6 - Mexico's presidential candidates debate:

About PRI and Enrique Peña Nieto
Peña Nieto makes whistle stop in Progreso:
Peña Nieto says Mexican army will retain pivotal role in drug war if he's elected:
PRI and Peña Nieto may be unstoppable:
Is alleged PRI-narco connection fair game in 2012 presidential election?:
PRI enraged over Felipe Calderón's comments to New York Times:
The many romances of Enrique Peña Nieto:
Peña Nieto admits: "I was unfaithful" - and bares all during newspaper interview:

About PAN and Josefina Vázquez Mota
Josefina ends 2012 campaign in Mérida
NY Times got Josefina Vázquez Mota's drug war strategy wrong:
Students heckle Josefina over ABC daycare fire:
Josefina Mota promises "full force of the law" against crooked politicians:
Josefina Vázquez Mota registers for prez and tells Mexico, "I'm clean":
Mexican Nobel Prize winner endorses Vázquez Mota: "struggle must continue":

About PRD and Andrés Manuel López Obrador
The Old Guard's worst nightmare: Andrés Manuel López Obrador:
López Obrador cleans up in UNAM mock election, with 83% of the vote:
López Obrador clarifies stance on military force withdrawal from drug war:
Economic inequality the primary cause of Mexico's insecurity, says Obrador:
López Obrado repeats promise to pull Mexican military forces from drug war:
Fanciful and shifting economic promises, a staple in Mexican campaign:
López Obrador begins campaign with bold promise: 7 million new jobs:
López Obrador promises PRD victory in 2012 - and a big pay cut for politicians:
PRD candidate Andrés López Obrador tells supporters, he's no Robin Hood:
Abortion opponents challenge PRD candidate López Obrador at papal Mass:
Mexican Cardinal Urges U.S. to “Stop Leftist Candidates” - including AMLO:

Increasing poverty, rising state debt result in poor economic report for Mexico:
Fanciful and shifting economic promises, a staple in Mexican campaign:

Mexico's 2012 presidential campaign closes
Josefina ends 2012 campaign in Mérida
Yo NO Soy's "summer of discontent":
NY Times got Josefina Vázquez Mota's drug war strategy wrong:
Mérida YoSoy 132 promises to turn up the heat:
U.K.'s Guardian reveals Televisa-EPN deal:
Peña Nieto rejects YoSoy debate demand:
YoSoy 132 demands final debate between Mexican presidential candidates:
The Old Guard's worst nightmare: Andrés Manuel López Obrador:
Vicente Fox, a PRIsta in very thin disguise:
Mexicans surveyed on YoSoy 132 attitudes:
YoSoy 132 returns to Mérida streets, this time showing its true colors:
"YoSoy 132" protest arrives in Mérida:
PAN, PRD reject cross demands to abandon presidential race:
López Obrador loyalists march as thousands protest Enrique Peña Nieto:
Struggle against drug cartels, organized crime will be his legacy, Calderón says:
Renowned Mexican author, political observer Carlos Fuentes Macías dies at 83:
Sen. John McCain has doubts about one of Mexico's presidential candidates:
Formal campaign yet to begin, but candidates are already clobbering each other:
Mexico facing "tremendous problems with mediocre candidates":
Renowned Mexican novelist offers harsh assessment of all the candidates:
Squabble over Peña Nieto's literary gaff focuses attention on his qualifications:
"The beast in the cave and the soap opera actor":
PRI is "lawless," says 2010 Noble Prize Laureate in Literature:
A primer on Mexican presidential politics:

Mexico's 2012 presidential campaign closes
López Obrador surges to 29% in latest poll:
Enrique Peña Nieto hits campaign low:
Mexican presidential race tightens (May 30):
López Obrador hits personal best in polls (May 25):
López Obrador again in 2nd place in post-debate survey:
Peña Nieto, cayendo en las encuestas, se queja de "una guerra suicia":
López Obrador tops Josefina in recent poll; Peña Nieto rides the down elevator:
Enrique Peña Nieto roars on Day 1 in GEA-ISA presidential preference poll:
GEA-ISA March 20 presidential preference poll:
Vázquez Mota continues polling strong in advance of Feb. 5 PAN primary:

Religion and social issues
Mexican presidential candidates address abortion, same-sex unions:

Editorial Opinion and News Analysis
Yo NO Soy's "summer of discontent":
The Old Guard's worst nightmare: Andrés Manuel López Obrador:
Vicente Fox, a PRIsta in very thin disguise:
A "free press" in Mexico - but who's really paying the tab?:
Peña Nieto avoids key drug war issue: will Mexican armed forces participate?:
Is Enrique Peña Nieto already backing away from key drug war pledge?:
PRI's "Great Hope" - Enrique Peña Nieto - enters Mexico's 2012 presidential race:
What does Mexican president Felipe Calderón think of PRI and Peña Nieto?:
Back to the "Good Old Days" in Mexico:
Josefina and Enrique:
Memo to Enique Peña Nieto - Mexico is waiting:
"Drug war threatens Mexico's survival and U.S. national security":
Survey reveals massive disconnect in Mexico between drug trade and violence:
Why the Calderón strategy has been the right one:
Why the L.A. Times just doesn't get it:
Mexico's Continuing Agony:
The Daily Obscenities of Mexico:
Mexico, will you free yourself?:

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