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Campaigning in Mexico's presidential race already under way

MEXICO CITY—More than a year before Mexico's presidential election, the three apparent front-runners already are campaigning hard, stumping the nation and filling airwaves with ads, promises and tirades—even though none of them has been officially nominated.

The early start to the election season—parties won't pick their candidates until fall and the Federal Electoral Commission won't register them until Jan. 1—underscores how eager Mexico's largest political parties are to secure the presidency as the six-year rule of President Vicente Fox winds down.

Fox was a novelty in Mexican history—the first candidate in 71 years to topple the Institutional Revolutionary Party, known as the PRI, when he won the 2000 election.

Fox's National Action Party, or PAN, would like to remain in control of the presidency. But the competition is most likely to come down to a two-man battle between the candidates of the PRI and the Revolutionary Democratic Party, or PRD.

Both the PRI's presumed candidate, Roberto Madrazo, its national leader, and the PRD's all-but-certain-standard bearer, Mexico City Mayor Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, are high-profile politicians who have confronted one another before in bitter races for governor of their home state of Tabasco.

The PAN's likely candidate is Santiago Creel, the former interior minister under Fox. But his prospects are dimmed by general dissatisfaction with Fox over the economy.

All may not go well for Madrazo, either. An enigmatic politician and lawyer who's been priming for the presidency for much of his 52 years, he behaves as if he's the natural heir to the PRI throne. But there's revolt within his party: Five PRI governors, a PRI senator and other party officials have formed an alliance, Tucom, the Spanish acronym for All United Against Madrazo.

His candidacy may also be undercut by bitterness from the PRI's No. 2 official, Elba Esther Gordillo, a teachers union leader whom Madrazo removed as the PRI's legislative leader in 2003, allegedly for becoming too chummy with the Fox camp. Gordillo is expected to take over the PRI's top post when Madrazo steps down to seek the presidency—something that was supposed to have happened July 12, but which the PRI central committee postponed until next month.

Gordillo, whose union is the largest bloc in the PRI's coalition, has made it clear she is no fan of Madrazo, once calling him "a liar and corrupt."

There is no such struggle within the PRD, however, where Lopez Obrador appears to have no opponents for the nomination, which is expected to come at the party's convention Sept. 18.

For decades, Mexican presidents traditionally handpicked their successors from the PRI ranks in a process known as the dedazo, or fingering. But this year, as they did in the last election, the PRI will hold open primaries in November to pick its candidate. In 1999, Madrazo lost the primaries to former Sinaloa governor Francisco Labastida, who then lost to Fox in the 2000 general election.

Fox's PAN has yet to pick a date for when it will formally name its candidate.

With recent polls showing Lopez Obrador leading the race, 34 to 36, compared to 25 percent for Madazo and 24 for Creel, the three contenders are spending millions in their pre-campaigns, which are unregulated by the Federal Electoral Institute until the campaigns officially start Jan. 1.

Without regulations or cash limits, the richest are the most seen and heard. In recently issued reports, two banking groups estimated that Mexico's two main television networks will earn at least $22 million from political TV spots before the official selection of candidates. By the time of the election next July, both networks will have taken in at least $116 million, the banks estimated. The networks themselves offer much higher numbers.

Already, money is figuring in the election run-up debate. On Friday, Federal Electoral Institute director Luis Carlos Ugalde complained that "gigantic" pre-campaign spending is "chaotic and fraudulent." His agency is hard-pressed to step in, he said.

"We have a new generation of problems in electoral processes in Mexico. Unfortunately, we have legal limits on what we can do," he told reporters.

Creel has accused Lopez Obrador of using his Mexico City budget to campaign, giving free lunches for hundreds and bestowing 10 apartments worth $2 million to needy neighborhoods. The mayor has made 50 campaign promises already, including vowing to create 400,000 jobs a year, stimulate construction and extend pensions for the elderly.

But Madrazo's the man expected to have real money. He's backed by some of the country's wealthiest and most powerful leaders whose loyalties to the PRI remain firm.

In his spots, Creel plugs his party as "the majority" and extols PAN members for being honest and working hard.

Lopez Obrador can't campaign himself, because he is still in office, but detractors say he might as well be campaigning, as the city sponsors ads touting the accomplishments of his administration: job creation, increased aid to the needy and improvement of the capital's infrastructure. One spot has an elderly woman grinning after her pension doubled.

Madrazo also is supposed to refrain from campaigning, because he's still holding a party position. But he's drawing fire for a television ad that shows him in an old family photo sitting on the lap of his father, Carlos Madrazo, who died in a plane crash in the 1960s. Madrazo said he had nothing to do with the ad, which suggests his father was killed for trying to reform the PRI.

The PRI has been angling to regain the presidency since its stunning loss in July 2000 and has shown it's still a powerful force, winning most of the country's gubernatorial and legislative races in the ensuing years. It commands by far the most seats in the Mexican congress and won the governor's race in Mexico state, the country's most populous, on July 3, the last major race before the 2006 presidential election.

Opinion polls show Madrazo, a familiar political face, has more support than his adversaries inside the party, but the potential for a distracting conflict is high.

Madrazo's supporters say Gordillo, who will rise to the PRI presidency when he steps down, must call new leadership elections within 60 days of taking office. But PRI rules also say there can be no changes in leadership once an new electoral season begins, and Gordillo, who just returned from 14 months in San Diego undergoing treatment for a kidney disorder, has vowed to stay on through next year's election.

Many say the turmoil in the PRI will only strengthen Lopez Obrador's campaign, which also may benefit simply because the PRD has never held the top national office.

"We had the PRI, we voted in the PAN and nothing changed," said Romero Franco de la Fuente, a taxi driver who moonlights as a shoe salesman to make ends meet. "I think Mexicans are looking for new blood."

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

ARCHIVE PHOTOS on KRT Direct (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): Roberto Madrazo, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): MEXICO-POLITICS

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