Mexico presidential race leaves voters dismayed

MEXICO CITY — Elections can be times of great promise and hope for the future. But as Mexican voters prepare to choose a new president in July, those sentiments are hard to come by.

In a country struggling with a vicious drug war and attempts to solidify democracy, many Mexicans are utterly disillusioned with the candidates and dismayed at the choices before them.

At the heart of the matter is a sense that the three main candidates offer no solutions, no real hope for change.

“With all the problems and demands facing Mexico, many people were hoping for a candidate who could make real change,” said pollster Jorge Buendia. “But now voters don’t have much expectation of that occurring. And so the electorate is a lot less excited.”


The election campaign officially began March 30, although it’s been clear for months who the candidates would be. Mexicans are being bombarded with TV spots and other propaganda for the candidates representing Mexico’s three largest and oldest political parties. (A fourth aspirant from a tiny party has also qualified for the July 1 ballot.)

More than 50,000 people have been killed in the 51/2 years since President Felipe Calderon took office and launched a military-led offensive against powerful drug cartels. The violence and soaring crime rates connected to the crackdown, including extortion and kidnapping, have terrified Mexicans.

The next government will have to decide whether to continue the increasingly unpopular, U.S.-backed drug war effort, or retreat.

Yet no candidate is emphasizing the need to fight the cartels, which has been the cornerstone of Calderon’s government. Instead, the main proposal is to reduce violence, but with few concrete steps offered on how to achieve that.

“For the first time in a quarter-century, the moral character of the election is being blurred by the mediocrity, or the cynicism, of the candidates,” said Mexican essayist Jorge Volpi. “Only a surprise can save us from this malaise.”

Under Mexican law, Calderon, of the conservative National Action Party (PAN), cannot run for reelection.

Leading the race by seemingly insurmountable margins is Enrique Peña Nieto, the long-groomed candidate of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). The PRI governed Mexico for most of the 20th century, dominating Mexican political life through a wily combination of co-option, corruption and intimidation until losing the presidency in 2000. It is now determined to make an emphatic comeback.

Peña Nieto and the PRI are capitalizing on Mexican fears and appealing to nostalgia for a past that these days seems simpler and safer. PRI officials deny critics’ charges that this would be a return to negotiating with drug cartels rather than confronting them.

Peña Nieto’s TV ads portray him almost as a sitting president, touring the country in beautiful locales, reassuring voters, “You know me.... We know how to lead.”

Yet for voters, there are nagging concerns about the PRI, including the question of whether the party has modernized and reformed and will continue Mexico’s slow process of building democratic institutions. Some fear it will return to its past habits of heavy-handed shenanigans aimed at maintaining power.

For decades, the PRI won every election (by official count, at least). Then, in 2000, voters turned out the party and brought in the PAN. In the last presidential election, in 2006, voters were on the brink of electing the country’s first leftist leader, who lost to another PAN candidate, Calderon, by less than 1 percentage point.

The PRI’s comeback owes much to a young electorate with little memory of the party’s past; a handsome, telegenic candidate; and a formidable political machinery that can court support through favor and gift.

Peña Nieto’s closest opponent is Josefina Vazquez Mota of the PAN. As the first female candidate for a major political party, she generated initial buzz and came within striking distance of Peña Nieto in some polls.

But the campaign has not gone well for Vazquez Mota. At her campaign-opening event, she arrived four hours late, leaving news cameras to shoot pictures of empty stadium seats when she finally spoke.

Last week, she suffered a dizzy spell during a meeting on crime and security. She blamed heat exhaustion and low blood pressure and took to a treadmill the next day for cameras to prove her fortitude, while the more nasty (and somewhat sexist) bloggers and tweeters wondered whether she was pregnant or bulimic.

Her greater difficulty, however, is attempting to distance herself from Calderon’s administration, one in which she held several Cabinet posts. “Josefina: Different” is her campaign slogan, but few voters see a real difference between her proposals and the policies enacted by Calderon.

The left, divided and poorly organized, put forward Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, the veteran politician who nearly won the 2006 contest. This time around, he has recast himself as a more conservative contender in a bid for broader appeal. He has toned down his once-confrontational rhetoric, made nice with the gigantic television network that once campaigned against him and attended Mass with the pope.

Lopez Obrador has been rallying a bit from his last-place position in the polls but appears unlikely to expand his support beyond a core following. Many Mexicans frown on his refusal to accept defeat in 2006, which led to disruptive demonstrations that closed Mexico City’s principal Paseo de la Reforma and spawned havoc.

He denies that he has changed for political expediency. “The country needs reconciliation,” he told a radio interviewer. “The country is being destroyed. The situation is grave, grave, grave.”

Surveying this bleak political landscape, some experts predict a low turnout. And among young first-time voters, abstention could soar.

Said Mexican political analyst Denise Dresser: “We feel like political orphans.”