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Mexico flu response blends into election campaign

Mexican President Felipe Calderon sounded victorious when he went before his nation to declare that the worst of the swine flu crisis was past.

By acting with speed and certainty, Calderon told television viewers early this week, his administration had blunted what once looked like a runaway, potentially disastrous epidemic.

“The situation that we faced was not simple,” he said. “The federal government made firm decisions to protect your health and that of your family. . . . Because we did the right thing, our strategy is working well.”

In a Cinco de Mayo address the next morning, he went further, saying Mexico deserved credit for having defended “all of humanity from the spread of this virus.”

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Not so fast, said Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, whom Calderon defeated in the 2006 presidential election.

Lopez Obrador went on the radio to accuse the government of bungling the situation because of a “virus of ineptitude.” He said the administration lacked a coherent strategy and stirred fear when health officials announced at the outset a confirmed death toll of 20 and, soon after, the possibility that more than 100 people had died from the flu.

Less than two weeks later, health officials had assured the public that the flu was declining in its infectious spread. Mexico’s health minister, Jose Angel Cordova, said Friday that testing had confirmed 160 new swine flu cases, bringing the total to 1,364, with 45 deaths.

The epidemic, apparently ebbing as a medical phenomenon, has become a political weapon. It may carry outsize impact because of its timing: The virus occurred just as the country prepared to turn its attention to midterm congressional elections, scheduled for July. The campaign officially opened Sunday, though the parties were barred from holding rallies, as a way of preventing the spread of infection.

Campaign events are now allowed, but officials are trying to prevent big crowds. New government health guidelines require attendees to stay at least 7 feet from one another.

To some, campaign season considerations seemed to hover close above the health crisis, as Calderon and Mexico City Mayor Marcelo Ebrard jockeyed to appear in command.

As Mexico City returned to work Wednesday, Ebrard, surrounded by cameras, was out scrubbing subway turnstiles. Calderon, meanwhile, dispatched the first lady, Margarita Zavala, to greet a planeload of Mexican tourists who had been confined in China by health officials there.

“It’s not that the campaign was suspended,” columnist Marcelino Perello wrote in the daily newspaper Excelsior, referring to the pause in electioneering.

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“It’s that the campaign is the health alert itself.”

That Mexico’s flu outbreak proved less damaging than feared may benefit Calderon, a conservative, and his National Action Party, or PAN. Many voters saw his administration’s response as calm and sure-footed. A poll Monday in Excelsior showed that respondents, by a wide margin, felt the government could protect them during the outbreak.

But the epidemic left many unanswered questions, including why it proved so much more severe in Mexico, which has accounted for almost all the fatalities worldwide.

Many Mexicans believe that government health officials took too long to recognize the problem, then gave incomplete information and up-and-down death tallies as events unfolded. On Wednesday, for example, health officials said they had confirmed the presence of the virus in Mexico on March 11 -- three weeks earlier than they had previously asserted.

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The conspiracy-minded suggested that the Calderon administration overplayed the possible threat to steer attention from the country’s soaring violence and economic woes.

The outbreak at first had some commentators predicting political disaster for the president, akin to the effects of the catastrophic 1985 Mexico City earthquake, which is often credited with the eventual downfall of the long-ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI.

That kind of outcome seems unlikely, though Calderon may have a hard time selling a happy ending, analysts said.

“I don’t think that things are going to be as easy for him as he might think,” said John Mill Ackerman, a law professor at the National Autonomous University of Mexico who writes columns in the Mexican press. He said the episode had “brought the systemic failures of the national public health system to the forefront of the national debate.”

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Since Calderon is not up for election, his handling of the outbreak may have only indirect impact on the July 5 balloting. At stake is the makeup of Congress and, therefore, Calderon’s ability to get laws passed during his remaining three years in office. The PAN has the most seats in the Senate and in the lower house, the Chamber of Deputies, but lacks a majority in either.

Voters will decide all 500 seats of the Chamber of Deputies, six governorships and hundreds more positions in state legislatures and city halls around the country. Polls before the outbreak had shown the PAN trailing the PRI.

The flu put a spotlight on Calderon’s rivalry with Ebrard, a member of the left-leaning Democratic Revolution Party, or PRD, and a close ally of Lopez Obrador. The PRD is competing in Mexico City elections July 5, though Ebrard is not on the ballot.

Ebrard, who has said he wants to run for president in 2012, has sought to appear the man in charge during the outbreak, which hit Mexico City harder than any other place.

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Ebrard drew criticism from Calderon aides when he essentially shut down the restaurant industry in the city last week by telling eateries they could serve food only for takeout. But analysts said such actions probably made Ebrard appear decisive at a critical moment. Restaurants were allowed to fully reopen Wednesday.

The Mexican media went breathless when Ebrard showed up Monday to meet with Calderon and Mexico’s 31 governors at Los Pinos, the presidential residence, to discuss reopening the nation’s schools. His party has boycotted Calderon, charging fraud in the 2006 presidential election.

Ebrard sat eight seats from the president, his face covered by one of the surgical masks that became ubiquitous during the flu scare. After the session, Ebrard was the first to confirm to the press when classes would resume.

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ken.ellingwood@latimes.com


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