Overflowing with campaign posters and the sparkling mugs of candidates, the streets of Ciudad Juarez and other Mexican cities have been transformed into public relations bazaars as one of the most bitter election campaigns in Mexican history winds down. Outgoing Mexican President Vicente Fox has promised the elections will go down as "the cleanest" in his nation's history, but red flags that are popping up everywhere portend possible trouble. If recent polls showing a neck-and-neck race between Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador and Felipe Calderon are accurate, the presidential race could be decided in a manner similar to the 2000 election dispute in the United States.
For better or worse, one man has set the agenda for the 2006 presidential election: Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, the standard-bearer of the For the Good of All electoral coalition. A former Mexico City mayor and leader of the center-left Party of the Democratic Revolution (PDR), Lopez Obrador, or "El Peje" as he is nicknamed, was clearly the early front-runner in a field of five registered candidates but was confronted with a serious challenge in recent months from President Fox's man, Felipe Calderon of the conservative National Action Party (PAN).
Basking in popularity from his low-income social programs in Mexico City, Lopez Obrador blasted the Fox administration's continuation of free trade, trickle-down economic policies engineered by the old ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) and expanded upon by the Fox administration. Evoking the legacies of national heroes like Benito Juarez and Emiliano Zapata, El Peje's message resounded with many Mexicans battered by decades of declining wages and escalating prices.
In response, rival candidates mimicked the front-runner's program, used government resources for politicking when possible and, especially in Calderon's case, mounted a fear campaign raising the specter of economic ruin in the event of a Lopez Obrador victory.
Strikingly similar to the campaign tactic of Peruvian president-elect Alan Garcia, the PAN casts Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez as the bogey-man behind El Peje. Websites flash caricatures of the supposed Chavez-Lopez-Castro-Morales "axis of evil" and project the image of El Peje as a nut case. The steaming animosity between Lopez Obrador and Calderon spiced up the otherwise staid, second candidates' debate on June 6, when the two presidential candidates tossed barbs at each other about alleged influence-peddling, corruption and extravagant spending.
In a last-ditch effort to pull up from a distant third, the PRI's Roberto Madrazo is attempting to position himself above the Calderon-Lopez Obrador fray. Peddling his candidacy as the alternative between the "inexperience" of the PAN and the "radicalism" of the PRD, Madrazo is appealing to voters who grumble about the PRI's decades-long rule but at least recall some semblance of stability. "Better to go with the robber that you know, than the one that you don't," is an old Mexican adage. Exploiting the public insecurity issue, Madrazo portrays himself as a man not afraid to govern. A campaign ad shows a suspect in a line-up pissing in his pants when the PRI's darling comes calling.
Mud-slinging, red-baiting, legal chicanery, and scattered bouts of violence have punctuated Mexico's 2006 campaign. Violent incidents and scandals not directly connected to the electoral campaign have inflamed the pre-election political climate. Early last month, confrontations between flower sellers and police in Texcoco and San Salvador Atenco near Mexico City escalated into the detention of officers and a subsequent police counter-attack that terminated in the government's killing of one man and the mass detention of hundreds of residents and their supporters.
Mexico's National Human Rights Commission and foreign international human rights organizations documented the gang-rape and sexual assaults of dozens of female detainees by police, but authorities have so far failed to respond. Longtime politician Porfirio Munoz Ledo, who co-founded the PRD and briefly served in the Fox administration, charged that Atenco represented "a virtual state coup." The occupation of Oaxaca City by tens of thousands of striking teachers has likewise added another fuse to the political powder keg.
Atenco and Oaxaca could be dress rehearsals for a national showdown if no definite winner emerges on the evening of July 2. The 40,000-plus absentee votes from abroad, allowed for the first time in a Mexican election but initially dismissed as an inconsequential number, could ironically end up playing a decisive factor.
Regardless of the outcome, the next Mexican president is likely to face the same political panorama that confronted Fox: a divided Congress not under the president's control. Feminist Patricia Mercado, the only woman candidate, could emerge as one of the surprises in this scenario. Running a shoe-string campaign, Mercado's new Alternative Social Democrat and Farmer's Party will gain representation in the new Congress if it attracts 2% of the vote -- thus achieving disproportional influence in a political configuration marked by no dominant party and the necessity for coalition. Breaking into the Good Old Boy's Club was clearly on Mercado's mind as she delivered her parting remarks to viewers on June 6, urging voters to make sure there is a new voice to monitor the "usual parties."
Kent Paterson is a freelance journalist who divides his time between Mexico and the US Southwest.