MEXICO CITY—Mexican presidential candidate Felipe Calderon's campaign must stop describing his opponent as a "danger to Mexico" in television advertisements, the country's Federal Election Institute ruled on Thursday.
The decision was a victory for Calderon's main rival in the July 2 vote, former Mexico City Mayor Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, who in recent weeks has fallen behind Calderon in public opinion polls—a decline analysts say was due in part to the ads.
The institute also ordered Calderon's party, the National Action Party, or PAN by its Spanish initials, not to sponsor any future ads disparaging political parties or candidates.
Members of the institute's nine-member governing council were unanimous in rejecting the "danger to Mexico" ads. "Free speech has its limits," said council member Marco Antonio Gomez. "One of the minimum limits is to make sure criticisms are true."
But the board split 5-4 on the broader ban on future ads. Arturo Sanchez Gutierrez, another council member, warned decisions to limit speech would only put the country "down the path to censorship."
Attack ads are a relatively new part of Mexico's electoral landscape. Until 2000, when the PAN's Vicente Fox won the presidency, Mexico had been ruled for 71 years by the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI. Wide-open presidential contests were unheard of.
This year, however, the race is hotly contested between Calderon and Lopez Obrador of the Party of the Democratic Revolution or PRD, with recent polls showing Calderon ahead with 39 percent to Lopez Obrador's 35 percent. The PRI's candidate, Roberto Madrazo, is running a distant third, with about 22 percent.
In that atmosphere, each of the campaigns has offered scathing television ads skewering the opposition. While the ads don't reach the heights of U.S.-style political attacks, they are harsh nonetheless.
One recent Calderon ad shows a 2001 lynch mob in the Mexico City neighborhood of Tlalpan with a clip of then-Mayor Lopez Obrador saying the attack was part of the area's "traditions." A narrator says Lopez Obrador "accepts barbarism and breaks the law." The ad ends by warning that Lopez Obrador represents a "danger to Mexico."
Lopez Obrador's campaign formally complained on May 12, saying the ads were inflammatory and denigrating. The complaint called the "danger to Mexico" line "unnecessary and disproportionate."
Before the council's ruling, PAN representatives said they planned to pull the controversial ads. At Thursday's meeting, PAN representative German Martinez Cazares responded by asking the council to use the same criteria to judge advertisements by Lopez Obrador and Calderon, handing over videos and a formal complaint.
The two parties aren't alone in their negative campaigning. Appearing in a recent commercial, PRI candidate Madrazo attacked Lopez Obrador, saying "lying is a habit for him."
Mexican election rules governing ads contain language similar to Mexican slander and defamation laws, which make damaging someone's reputation a felony, even if the allegations are true, said Jeffrey Weldon, director of the political science department at the Autonomous Mexican Technology Institute in Mexico City and a critic of the institute's decision.
"Free speech takes a back seat to fair elections, which is very odd," Weldon said. "In most countries, political speech is often much more protected than normal speech because it is hard to have elections otherwise. They are certainly damaging democracy to try and save democracy."
(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
ARCHIVE PHOTOS on KRT Direct (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): Felipe Calderon, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador
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