By Heather Murphy
Friday, June 9, 2006 12:59 PM
On July 2, Mexicans will vote in what may turn out to be the closest presidential election in the country's history. Current polls reflect a tie between conservative candidate Felipe Calderon of President Vicente Fox's National Action Party (PAN) and leftist candidate Manuel Lopez Obrador of the Democratic Revolution Party. Roberto Madrazo of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which ruled Mexico for seven decades before Fox became president, lags behind in third. Candidates Patricia Mercado and Roberto Campa, both of small leftist parties, take a distant fourth and fifth.
Because all the major candidates have made the same promises -- to create jobs, to eliminate corruption and to deal with immigration -- the race now comes down to who people trust. While Mexico's wealthy minority threw their support behind Calderon early on and the country's poor tend to be loyal followers of Obrador, it is largely up to undecided lower- and middle-class voters to decide how the tie breaks.
National Action Party (PAN)
The 43-year-old former energy secretary was born into the National Action Party -- his father, Luis, was a founder of PAN and later an influential member on both the local and national level.
Raised in Morelia, Michoacan, in the central west part of Mexico, Calderon became involved in PAN while studying to become a lawyer in the early 80s. As he quietly moved up the party ranks, he also moved up the educational ladder, acquiring a master's in economics in Mexico and another in public policy at Harvard.
At times described as "dull" and "wonkish," Calderon had relatively low name recognition at the start of the campaign -- he took many by surprise when he won his party's presidential nomination in 2005.
The focus of Calderon's campaign has been jobs and stability. He has promised to build upon the successes of Vicente Fox's administration, particularly the expansion of the middle class and the rise in homeownership rates.
Backed by Mexico's wealthy minority and business leaders early on, Calderon has more recently turned his energy toward lower- and middle-class voters. He has done this principally through negative campaigning against rival Obrador. In one series of television ads, he accuses Obrador of being a "Danger to Mexico." Though the ads were eventually banned, the slogan stuck.
While Calderon has made many of the same promises as Obrador -- to build new refineries, expand health care, develop an immigration accord with the United States and to create job and educational opportunities for the poor -- he emphasizes that he has a more measured, realistic way of going about it than the others.
Calderon has said he is the only candidate offering absolute transparency and has outlined a comprehensive plan about how to keep his administration corruption-free. While this has convinced some, others charge he would be a pushover of the wealthy. Obrador has encouraged these fears with advertisements accusing the former energy secretary of approving a corrupt giveaway to the rich in 1998.
Democratic Revolution Party
The 52-year-old former mayor of Mexico City was born into middle class family in the southern oil state of Tabasco. He emerged as a talented young politician in the PRI while studying political science at a public university in the late 70s. Frustrated with the party's inability to produce change, he left in 1988 to join the new Party of the Democratic Revolution. By the age of 34, he had become a leader in this opposition party.
In 2000, Obrador became mayor of Mexico City. He won over the hearts of residents by providing cash subsidies to single mothers and the elderly and addressing horrendous traffic problems with elevated highways and an improved bus system. He left office in 2005 with an unprecedented 80 percent approval rating.
Obrador has defined himself as an antidote to the corrupt, wealthy leaders of the past, a crusader poised to "make history" for the benefit of the underdogs. He has vowed to, for example, to force Mexican monopolies to hire on the basis of merit rather than connections. His campaign slogan, "For the Good of Everyone, the Poor First," is supported in his policy proposals; he is the favorite of Mexico's vast underclass.
Though Obrador's plans for funding his policies are often vague, his promises are tangible. He has vowed to use subsidies and wage increases to boost spending power of the poor by 20 percent. He has pledged new schools, roads, hospitals, oil refineries, improved electricity, clean water, health subsidies for the poor, pensions for the elderly as well as scholarships and jobs for the young.
Like Calderon, Obrador is pushing for an immigration accord with the United States. He says that building a wall is not a viable solution and pledges to focus on creating good jobs so that Mexicans will not have to emigrate.
From the start, Obrador was disliked by members of the upper class and business community. They viewed him as an uncultured Robin Hood figure who would rob from the rich to give to the poor and ultimately ruin everything for everyone.
A vicious attack campaign spearheaded by Felipe Calderon helped spread these fears to members of the middle and lower classes. While advertisements calling the leftist candidate a "Danger to Mexico" were eventually banned, the message stuck. Other ads likening Obrador to the corrupt, irresponsible spenders of Mexico's past and insinuating ties to Venezuela's Hugo Chavez reinforced the idea that the populist candidate would ruin the economy.
Obrador has fought these accusations heartily, emphasizing his overtures to the business community, denying all ties to Chavez and reiterating his Washington- and investment-friendly policies. But the seed of doubt was planted.
Calderon's leap forward in the polls was also enabled by Obrador's own missteps. His decision not to participate in the first debate and his angry imperative of "Shut up!" to President Fox made him look both weak and temperamental. His placid, on-point performance in the second debate surprised many commentators and left the candidates in a virtual tie in opinion polls.
Party of the Institutionalized Revolution (PRI)
The 53-year-old candidate was born into a politically connected family in Mexico City. He was orphaned at 17 when his parents died in a plane crash that some historians think was arranged to kill his father, a PRI president set on reforming the party.
Madrazo got involved in politics in the early 1970s while his father, Carlos, was serving as governor of the oil-rich Tabasco state. As Roberto obtained a law degree in Mexico and then a masters at the University of California, he followed his father's footsteps up the party ranks. In 1994, he became governor of Tabasco and in 2002, he became president of the party.
Madrazo took the helm at a difficult time; the PRI was just about the weakest it had been in over seven decades. Dominating Mexican politics from the end of the Mexican Civil war in 1929 until it lost the presidency to Vicente Fox in 2000, the party had become synonymous with corruption and inefficiency. Though Madrazo pledged to reform the PRI, accusations that he had won the title of party chief by ballot-fixing undermined his credibility.
Like many other leftists in Latin America, Madrazo rejects the "neo-liberal model" of the last decade and urges greater social developments along regional lines. He has proposed a special fund for the betterment of poor southern Mexico. He has also pledged to generate nine million jobs in six years and offer scholarships to low-income students.
Allegations of corruption and political infighting have stained Madrazo's campaign. He has been characterized as a member of the "old guard" and faces opposition even within his own party. An avid runner, who has often likened his camapaign to a marathon, Madrazo acknowledges the next few weeks will be the most difficult race he has ever run.
Social-Democratic and Farmers Party
The little-known feminist founded the Social-Democratic and Workers Party for her candidacy. She has focused her campaign on the potent inequality in Mexican society, pledging to equalize opportunities for members of all social classes, genders, ethnicities, religions, sexual orientations and geographic areas. She backs abortion rights and has publicly criticized Mexico's powerful Catholic Church for working against women.
Campa, a dissident from the once powerful PRI party, has emphasized that it is only through improving the educational system that Mexico can move forward to First World status. He has criticized NAFTA, arguing that only a small part of the country has benefited. While he is pro-market and open to friendly relations with Washington, he asserts that U.S. needs wake up and acknowledge the indispensable role Mexicans play in its economy.