Mexican Voters Play It Safe With Calderon
Friday, July 7, 2006; 11:33 AM
MEXICO CITY -- Felipe Calderon won Mexico's presidential election not because of who he is, but because of who he isn't. After peacefully ushering in democracy only six years ago, many Mexicans were not ready to shake up the status quo and flip the country on its head with a leftist leader who promised to put its nearly 50 million poor first.
While Mexicans were largely disappointed that President Vicente Fox did not do more to improve their daily lives, he also did not make things worse. The former Coca-Cola executive's six years in office have been marked by slow but steady economic growth, without the kind of financial meltdowns that had plagued the country since the 1960s.
In the end, those who voted for Calderon opted to play it safe. Many worried his main rival, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, would send Mexico down the path of other Latin American countries like Venezuela, where President Hugo Chavez's socialist policies have driven away foreign investment.
Calderon capitalized on those fears, airing an ad on national TV highlighting a diplomatic flap last year in which Chavez warned Fox: "Don't mess with me sir. You'll get stung." The spot then cut to video of Lopez Obrador telling the president to "shut up." The finale: "Say no to intolerance."
Other ads showed images of Lopez Obrador emblazoned with "Crisis" or "A danger to Mexico."
The former Mexico City mayor complained about the ads comparing him to Chavez, and electoral officials eventually ordered Calderon's campaign to take them off the air.
But the message had already left its mark in the minds of Mexicans. In a country closely tied to the United States and where American companies are the largest private-sector employers, many believed the risks were too great.
Some worried a Lopez Obrador presidency would return the country to its boom-and-bust years, when the peso rode a roller-coaster and many people felt their savings were better off under a mattress than in banks.
Lopez Obrador worked to assure foreign investors he was no Chavez. He sent his chief economic adviser, Cambridge-educated Rogelio Ramirez de la O, an independent consultant well respected on Wall Street, to spread the word that he planned to build on Mexico's economic system _ not dismantle it.
While that message calmed international markets, it failed to reach his most crucial audience: Mexico's growing middle class, whose memories of the last financial crisis in 1994 were still too painful. That crisis galvanized people across class lines to kick out the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, six years later, ending seven decades of single-party rule.
Famous for mobilizing millions of devoted followers, Lopez Obrador struggled to prove he was a statesman and not a rabble-rouser. But his nickname, el Peje _ after a feisty, scrappy fish from his swampy Gulf state of Tabasco _ didn't help.
The suit-wearing, bespectacled Calderon guaranteed stability. His campaign slogan was "My job will be to make sure you have a job."
But if the Harvard-educated, free-trade-friendly Calderon won by promising to stay the course, he must do more than that if he is to mend a country deeply divided by a campaign that shone a spotlight on its wide, centuries-old gap between rich and poor. He faces governing a nation where just over a third of the popular vote put him in office.
What's more, millions of left-leaning voters felt they were robbed of the presidency for a second time. Lopez Obrador, who has vowed to challenge the official results in court, has blamed fraud for his narrow loss in Sunday's vote. In 1988, Cuauhtemoc Cardenas lost a controversial presidential election marred by allegations the government rigged the vote. Cardenas went on to found Lopez Obrador's Democratic Revolution Party.
This time, however, the resentment is stronger. Many Lopez Obrador supporters feel betrayed by the fraud allegations, believing that Fox's stunning victory over the PRI in 2000 signaled an end to decades of rigged elections. Mexico's millions of poor also thought their numbers would allow them to decide who is the next president.
But Lopez Obrador isn't likely to go away anytime soon. He inspired those who felt they had no voice, and as the symbol of Mexico's new main opposition party, he will likely continue to be their leader _ even if it's from the streets instead of the presidential residence.
Julie Watson has been covering Latin America since 1996.