Will Mexico Go Left or Stay Conservative?

The Associated Press
Saturday, July 1, 2006; 5:05 PM

MEXICO CITY -- Mexicans buffeted by a mudslinging, polarized presidential campaign are choosing Sunday between plunging into Latin America's left-wing tide or electing a conservative who favors free trade and globalization.

With leftist Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador and conservative Felipe Calderon running neck-and-neck, the election _ which will also pick both houses of congress and five governors _ hinges on class divisions that have seldom been talked about so openly in Mexican politics.

For 71 years, until President Vicente Fox's victory in 2000, the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, ruled Mexico by claiming to represent all economic classes. Fox's victory ushered in full democracy and bettered life for the middle class but failed to create millions of jobs, tame Mexico's drug barons or settle its migrant-labor problems with the U.S.

Today, half of Mexico's 103 million people live on $4.50 a day and the poorest 20 million earn half that _ a social and cultural gulf that has been the cornerstone of Lopez Obrador's campaign to succeed Fox, who is constitutionally barred from seeking-re-election.

The divide was on vivid display recently as his supporters cut through a swanky Mexico City shopping mall on their way to a campaign rally. Farming families who had never encountered escalators were hesitant to get on them, drawing disdainful looks from well-dressed onlookers.

This election boils down to a race between those strangers in the shopping mall and Mexicans who fear losing the low-interest loans and economic stability that emerged under Fox's disciplined budgets and high international reserves.

Santino Sanchez Juarez, 87, is one of the former. He barely survived doing odd jobs until Lopez Obrador, as Mexico City mayor, gave the elderly $65 monthly pensions.

"He is the only one with a heart, who cares for the people," said Sanchez Juarez.

He expressed a certain nostalgia for Adolfo Lopez Mateos who, as president from 1958 to 1964, used charisma, nationalism and populist handouts to the poor, but also crushed dissent and antagonized the United States.

Lopez Obrador shares that nostalgia, and his conservative opponent's campaign has been largely based on stoking fears that the left-winger is a clone of Hugo Chavez, Venezuela's Cuba-friendly president, and will foment class divisions while returning Mexico to the last debt-ridden years of PRI rule.

The PRI now looks like a spent force, with its candidate, Roberto Madrazo, trailing third in the polls, and Calderon's line of attack seems to have won some supporters.

Listening to Lopez Obrador, "It's almost as though, if you're not poor, he doesn't want to know about you," said Marisol Castro, 55, a middle-class nutritionist from the western city of Zamora.

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