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Mexico's Presidential Election Expected to Be Close

This Sunday [7/2/06], voters in Mexico go the polls to elect a new president and legislature. But it is the tight race between two very different top contenders for president that has drawn the most attention.

Six years ago, Mexican presidential candidate Vicente Fox made history when his National Action Party defeated the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party after more than 70 years in power. By law, President Fox cannot run for a second term. And this year, the opposition may defeat his party.

Populist Obrador Leads Polls

Recent public opinion polls show Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, the candidate of the leftist Democratic Revolutionary Party, slightly ahead of Felipe Calderon, the candidate of the center-right ruling party. The third place candidate, Roberto Madrazo of the Institutional Revolutionary Party is far behind with less than 30 percent popular support. Two other candidates are even further down in the polls.

Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, the former mayor of Mexico City, calls himself the candidate of the poor. Armand Peschard-Sverdrup, Director of the Mexico Project at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, says the populist candidate has never attempted to broaden his base.

"He thinks that there are enough people in the lower segments of society - the marginalized, the have-nots - to get him elected to office," says Peschard-Sverdrup. "And so he's been very disciplined from day one in crafting a message that only resonates to that segment of society. And if he succeeds in galvanizing that segment of society to come out to the polls on July 2, he could conceivably end up winning because it is a sizeable segment of Mexican society. But it's also one which, traditionally, has not necessarily participated in elections."

Obrador promises to lower the price of gas and electricity, to institute free universal health care and to increase pensions. He vows to provide more clean water and to pave more roads. And he says most of this can be achieved without raising taxes.

Slow Economic Growth

President Fox took office amid hopes that he could modernize the Mexican economy and, with the help of the North American Free Trade Agreement, liberate it from the corruption and monopolies that held the country in poverty throughout the 20th century. But in the past six years, economic growth has averaged less than two percent per year and the rich-poor gap has not decreased. Although official unemployment figures are relatively low, less than four percent, about a quarter of Mexico's population is severely underemployed.

Felipe Calderon, the candidate of the ruling National Action Party, promises to change that. Analyst Peschard-Sverdrup says Calderon's campaign focuses on foreign investment, free trade and pro-business policies.

"He is the 'candidate of employment,' obviously, of job creation. He is the candidate of compassion, but a firm hand. He is the candidate of the rule of law. And his campaign strategy has tried to position him as a contrast to his principal rival, Lopez Obrador," says Peschard-Sverdrup.

But when that strategy alone was not enough to move him ahead in the polls, Calderon resorted to negative campaigning. He compared his rival to Venezuela's leftist authoritarian president Hugo Chavez, who is unpopular in Mexico, and called Obrador a threat to Mexico's future.

Some analysts have expressed similar concerns about Obrador. Prominent Mexican historian and publisher Enrique Krauze is one. "What is disturbing is not his social and economic program. Liberal opinion in Mexico could naturally see how a leftist democratic regime that is both responsible and modern could come to power, just as in Brazil and Chile. What is worse about Lopez Obrador is Lopez Obrador himself," says Krauze. "He does not represent, in my opinion, a modern, democratic left, but the other left -- the one that is now rising in Latin America with a new disturbing element, which is political messianism."

In Krauze's opinion, Obrador could dissolve Mexico's democratic institutions and remove the ban on re-electing the president. But many observers say that leftist populism is not an automatic winner in Latin America. They point out that the populist candidate lost in Peru's recent presidential election and was not a real threat in Colombia's ballot. Venezuela's Hugo Chavez may have gained an ally in Bolivia's Evo Morales, they add, but even he promises to be a moderate socialist.

Polarized Mexico's Society

This year's election reflects divisions within Mexican society, says Lorenzo Meyer, an editorial writer for the Mexican national newspaper, Reforma. "This is an election between right and left. And it's a reflection of what Mexican society is. Mexico, socially speaking, is a very polarized society. There is a huge concentration of capital and on the other hand, this huge concentration of poverty. So the political universe is reflecting the social composition of Mexico and that is not particularly healthy."

However, says Meyer, the Mexican economy is now geared toward free markets and globalization. And, in his opinion, this will not change, no matter who wins Sunday's vote. Members of Mexico's business community agree.

Jose Antonio Fernandez, Chairman of the Board of FEMSA, Latin America's largest beverage company, adds that no matter which party wins, Mexico will maintain good relations with the United States.

"After election day, Mexico and the United States will still have serious challenges head, such as immigration, eradicating poverty, establishing long lasing security of our homelands, ensuring human and political rights, and so on. My personal view is that globalization also means that economic and social differences among countries and
among people must disappear," says Fernandez. "We [i.e., the United States and Mexico] have to work on these together. We must focus our effort in intelligentand efficient ways to achieve the closing of that gap."

Most analysts say that Mexico's electoral institutions will ensure free and fair voting on Sunday. They say any new administration, in turn, is expected to provide fair and democratic governance.

This story was first broadcast on the English news program, VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.