Why is the Mexican presidential election important?

It is only in the last few decades that Mexico has achieved a true democracy, with open, fair competition among political parties. This election is important because Mexico is the middle of a violent confrontation among powerful criminal organizations and the government, at the same time the nation struggles to become more middle-class and competitive.

Why is the Mexican election important to the United States?

The United States shares responsibility for drug cartels in Mexico. America is the largest consumer of illegal drugs in the world, and most of these products arrive via Mexico. Money and weapons sent south contribute to the violence. The two countries are also vitally interconnected in trade and manufacturing — and tourism, too. Mexico is the No. 1 foreign destination for Americans. The two countries also share a culture, too. About 12 million Mexicans live in the United States. Issues of immigration — legal and illegal — are also challenging both countries.

Who are front-runners?

The race in many ways is a judgment on the success and failure of the ruling party of President Felipe Calderon.

●Enrique Pena Nieto is the new face of the old, autocratic and often corrupt Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, which ran Mexico for more than 70 years, until the party was pushed out of power by Calderon’s predecessor, Vicente Fox, in 2000. Handsome, telegenic and great in a crowd, Pena Nieto, 45, is still something of a mystery (he famously couldn’t correctly name three books that influenced his life). No one is really sure how he will govern as president — whether he would tackle the tough reforms Mexico needs to enter the 21st century, or allow his party to return to cronyism and coercion. Pena Nieto, a former governor of the state of Mexico, has pledged to run a super-efficient government based on results.

●Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, 59, is the former mayor of Mexico City and the face of the political left in Mexico, the Party of Democratic Revolution, or PRD. He narrowly lost his presidential bid in 2006 by less than one percent — and he claimed election fraud by his opponent Felipe Calderon was the reason. These time around, Lopez Obrador, whom everyone calls AMLO, has declared his candidacy one of love versus confrontation. He has pledged to get Mexico growing again at six percent, to strengthen programs to reduce poverty, and to end the business monopolies that make Mexico less competitive.

●Josefina Vazquez Mota, 51, represents the ruling party of Calderon, the National Action Party, and that is part of her challenge. Voters seem tired of Calderon and the PAN. Vazquez Mota served as secretary of education under Calderon, and while she is credited with some minor success, she ultimately failed to transform Mexico’s poorly performing public education, which is run by the teachers union and its powerful boss. Vazquez Mota’s campaign advertisements describe her — the first women contending for the top spot — as “different.” But most of her proposals would continue to follow Calderon’s lead.

What do the polls say?

Pena Nieto has held a steady double-digit lead over his opponents since campaigning began at the end of April. Vazquez Mota and Lopez Obrador are statistically tied for second place, but are 20 points behind in some surveys. Most observers say that barring an explosive scandal or a fatal misstep, Pena Nieto will be hard to beat, though in past contests, the vote has tightened in the closing days. Lopez Obrador contends that the polls are rigged by powerful media interests and that he is closing in on his rival.

How will the election work?

Calderon is barred from reelection after serving his single six-year term. Ballots will be cast July 1 and barring chaos at the polling stations, or a computer malfunction, Mexicans will learn later that night who is leading. The new president will be inaugurated Dec. 1.

What will the election mean to the drug war?

Maybe not much. Lopez Obrador has pledged to remove military troops from the fight within six months. Vazquez Mota would generally follow Calderon’s U.S.-backed strategies, which have targeted cartel leadership. Calderon has succeed in weakening some crime organizations, while others have thrived, such as Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, leader of the Sinaloa cartel. Some 50,000 Mexicans have died in the confrontations. Pena Nieto says he cares less about drug trafficking and more about the crimes — murder, extortion, kidnapping, robbery — that affect ordinary Mexicans. To tackle this, Pena Nieto might find himself face-to-face with the violent Zetas crime group.