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From Homemaker to Kingmaker

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Mexico’s new power brokers turned up in polka-dot aprons and stretch pants. They filled the capital’s imposing National Auditorium, bouncing babies and scooting after toddlers. They were moms, and they were being assiduously wooed by presidential candidate Francisco Labastida.

“You have the power!” Labastida cried to the 9,000 women. “You will decide the next president of Mexico!”

You’ve come a long way, baby. For years, politics was a man’s world in Mexico, a ritual of tequila-lubricated lunches and macho chants. But, as the Labastida rally last week demonstrated, women have taken on unprecedented importance in Sunday’s presidential election, the most competitive ever.

The female vote is especially critical to the long-ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI. Its candidate, Labastida, is in a virtual tie with Vicente Fox of the center-right National Action Party, or PAN, according to polls. But the PRI enjoys an advantage of as many as 10 percentage points with Mexico’s women, who tend to be more wary of change.

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The party’s calculations come down to this: If it extends its 71-year rule, it will be thanks to the madres in the fatherland.

Women like Maria del Socorro Perez.

“In the past, there wasn’t any support for women,” the 54-year-old school secretary said at the Labastida rally. “But from invitations like this, we see the parties are thinking about us.”

The new attention to women reflects a sweeping change in their political participation. Mexican women didn’t get the vote until 1953, more than three decades after their U.S. counterparts. For years, many didn’t bother to cast ballots. But now, women make up 52% of registered voters.

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The surge in participation can be attributed to a variety of factors: women’s increasing education levels, feminism and the introduction in 1993 of voter identification cards. The cards were aimed at reducing fraud, but in a country in which many poor women don’t drive or hold formal jobs, the credentials meant far more.

“The electoral photo ID . . . represented for millions of women the first opportunity to have identification,” said Dulce Maria Sauri, the president of the PRI--and a woman. “Using the credential is an affirmation of a woman’s identity.”

Analysts say the PRI has an advantage among Mexican women because they are generally less educated than men, know less about politics and are more wary of change that could produce conflict.

“The PRI has been the dominant party for 71 years. It has widespread brand recognition. It takes additional political information for people to think about voting for the opposition,” said Chappell Lawson, a political scientist and Mexico specialist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

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Women also tend to be more dependent on government programs, analysts say. Critics charge that the PRI is abusing such programs to pressure women voters, especially in poor rural areas. The party denies the charge.

While the PRI has an important edge among women, the gap has shrunk in recent months. The party is struggling to shore up its female base.

“People have more information about the opposition--they’re less afraid of it,” Lawson said. “Votes from women, like from every other sector of society, are increasingly at risk for the ruling party.”

That has produced a startling change in Mexican campaigns.

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Presidential candidates are giving unprecedented attention to female voters, promising everything from a government institute focusing on women’s issues to a ban on the pregnancy tests required of female job applicants. Candidates regularly hold rallies and breakfasts with women. The major parties have armies of women going door to door.

No candidate has been more active than Labastida, who declares that he will be the “women’s president.” He is promising free school lunches, expanded prenatal care, and English and computer classes for children.

In one recent television interview, Labastida waxed so long about women that the male anchor finally interrupted him. “What about us?” he demanded.

Not that the candidates are about to put Gloria Steinem out of a job. In fact, some of their tactics would make a U.S. feminist wince.

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In his speeches to female audiences, for example, Labastida helpfully points out that women “have a brain, in addition to a heart and sensitivity.” PRI candidates have sponsored both beauty pageants and a male beefcake show to impress women.

Fox is no less subtle. The PAN candidate, whose alpha-male image includes cowboy boots and a belt buckle the size of a butter dish, listed his credentials in a Mother’s Day appearance, saying he can iron, wash clothes and “make fried eggs better than almost anyone--I break very few yolks.”

He urged the assembled women

to get out the vote for him. “Hike up your skirts!” he cried.

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The campaign for the women’s vote comes as the parties are featuring more female politicians. Both the PRI and the left-of-center Democratic Revolution Party, or PRD, which is in third place in the polls, are headed by women. The federal electoral authority has called on parties to ensure that at least 30% of their members of Congress are women, up from the current 19%.

Nonetheless, Mexico remains a traditional society. Many of the politicians’ appeals are to homemakers and mothers, especially in TV advertising.

Labastida has highlighted his charismatic wife, Maria Teresa Uriarte, in television appearances. In a country in which candidates’ families traditionally stay in the background, Uriarte has broken new ground, heading a pyramid-style organization of supporters and tirelessly campaigning.

In a not-so-subtle dig at Fox, who is divorced, Labastida constantly emphasizes how his marital relationship illustrates his respect for women. The PRI candidate doesn’t mention that he is on his second marriage or that he had a daughter out of wedlock while married to his first wife--a recently disclosed fact that didn’t raise eyebrows in this macho society.

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Critics charge that the PRI strategy for women goes beyond policy proposals and ads. They accuse the party of abusing government programs and buying votes by handing out bags of rice, beans and household goods to needy homemakers.

At the center of the storm is the federal welfare program Progresa, which dispenses cash to women to encourage them to keep their children healthy and in school. Opposition lawmakers have logged dozens of examples in which Progresa coordinators told women that they would lose their payments if they didn’t support the PRI.

That’s the warning Elena Gutierrez, a mother of eight, received from a Progresa aide. Gutierrez, 45, receives about $25 a month from the program, an important sum for families in her dirt-poor farming village outside Villa Guerrero in the central state of Mexico.

“I’m a bit confused. The vote is supposed to be secret,” Gutierrez said as she scrubbed clothes on a washboard. “Do you think our aid will be cut off?”

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Another homemaker, Lourdes Elizarraras, said the PRI had given away food packages, cement and roofing material to potential voters in the village. Critics say such handouts, while not necessarily illegal, are unethical.

But Elizarraras, 33, didn’t understand that criticism.

“The PRD came to campaign here, but they didn’t give us anything,” she said, shrugging. “If the PRI helps me more, of course I’ll vote for them.”

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