MEXICO CITY—After a year that saw hundreds of thousands of people march in the streets, record spending on searing TV ads and endless political intrigue, Mexico's presidential campaign probably will turn on what happens in a television studio Tuesday night.
For two hours, the contenders will debate the issues that voters face: more jobs, less crime and a better future. It'll be the first time that all the presidential candidates will be on the same stage.
But with less than a month to go before the vote July 2, the questions are really just three:
Which of the two leading contenders, pro-business Felipe Calderon or populist Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, will come out ahead? Will the country's former political old guard survive an election in which its candidate is running a distant third? And how will the public react to what could be an incredibly close finish?
That no one is certain at this late date who will win the race is a startling development in a country in which a single political party ruled for most of the last century.
What's known is that whoever wins will set a six-year course for the country that could be as important to the United States as it is to Mexico. Issues that include what to do about migration to the United States, what foreign policy to pursue and whether to open the economy to more foreign investment face the next president.
And with much of the country's 107 million people still cynical about their government, a close election could be fought in the streets as well as in the courts.
"It's likely unless there is some coalition between the two parties or some drastic changes, it will be close," said Elliot Young, the director of Latin American studies at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Ore. "If it's close, there will likely be claims of fraud."
For most of the last two years, it had appeared that the election wouldn't be a contest at all.
Lopez Obrador, a 52-year-old former Mexico City mayor with the Party of Democratic Revolution, or PRD in its Spanish initials, consistently led all presidential opinion surveys.
His victory was considered so likely that rival politicians tried to have him prosecuted for involvement in a minor land dispute, which would have barred him from running.
Mexico's Congress, dominated by the former ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, went so far as to strip him of immunity from prosecution last year. The attorney general, an appointee of President Vicente Fox of the National Action Party, or PAN, promised to bring charges quickly.
But hundreds of thousands of Lopez Obrador's supporters took to Mexico City's streets. Under enormous pressure to keep the peace, Fox fired his attorney general and appointed a replacement, who announced an end to the investigation within days. Lopez Obrador's victory seemed assured.
Last month, however, Calderon, a 43-year-old lawyer and Fox's former energy secretary, suddenly overtook Lopez Obrador.
Until last fall, Calderon wasn't expected even to be the PAN's candidate. Fox preferred someone else, and in a country in which presidents serve only one term and long had selected their successors, his choice seemed unquestioned. But Calderon won in the PAN's nationwide primary, in which Fox got one vote, the same as any party member.
Two developments allowed Calderon to overcome Lopez Obrador's lead. The first was Lopez Obrador's decision to skip the first presidential debate in April, which gave Calderon a chance to shine. The second was Calderon's U.S.-style ad campaign equating Lopez Obrador to Venezuela's leftist President Hugo Chavez and calling the former mayor a danger to Mexico, a campaign considered so harsh by Mexican standards that the election commission ordered Calderon to pull the ads.
Most current polls in Mexico City's daily newspapers have Lopez Obrador and Calderon neck and neck. A distant third is Roberto Madrazo, the 53-year-old former national head of the PRI.
PRI leaders had hoped that this election would restore their party to the presidency, a post their candidates had won exclusively for seven decades before Fox's victory in 2000.
But Madrazo, plagued by past party scandals and accusations of personal corruption, has never led in a poll or even been second.
As the campaign has progressed, his standing in the polls has continued to drop, even though his campaign has outspent the others in television advertising. Last month, some senior PRI leaders called for voters to cast "useful" votes by choosing Lopez Obrador over Calderon.
Now the question is whether the PRI, which remains a formidable presence in Congress and in state houses, can survive an almost certain presidential drubbing.
"It is not a question of the election, but it is a question of if they are a viable party," said Sergio Aguayo, a political expert at Mexico City's Colegio de Mexico.
Even after the election, analysts see uncertainty.
If Lopez Obrador wins, Mexico could see its foreign investment dwindle over concerns about his populist plans, including a $7 billion subsidy program he unveiled last week, said Young of Lewis & Clark College. The nation also may try to renegotiate its foreign debts, he said.
If Calderon wins, he probably would continue the same policies as Fox, though he probably will face opposition in Congress, as Fox has.
Most worrisome to analysts is what will happen if Calderon wins narrowly. Lopez Obrador and others could cry fraud.
While the U.S. Supreme Court decided the close race between President Bush and Al Gore in 2000, it's unclear how Mexico's system would react.
"In the United States, for good reason, people tend to believe the judiciary is independent. When the Supreme Court came out with the decision, it was accepted," Young said. "If a similar situation happened in Mexico, you would see hundreds of thousands of people take to the streets."
(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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