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Slate of candidates set for Mexico's 2006 presidential election

MEXICO CITY—After more than a year of often dramatic political combat, Mexicans now know who'll be next year's presidential candidates in an election that's likely to be the most competitive in Mexico's history.

Sunday, the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI, by its Spanish initials) selected Roberto Madrazo, the party's former leader, to be its standard bearer in the party's open primary. With 76 percent of the ballots counted, Madrazo had a 10-to-1 lead over rival Everardo Moreno.

Madrazo will face former Energy Secretary Felipe Calderon from the National Action Party (PAN), who won his party's nomination last month after a series of internal elections, and Mexico City Mayor Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, the only person who's seeking to lead the left-of center Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD) ticket and the current favorite to win next year's vote.

The election will be watched closely, in part because the results could set the tone in a region that's increasingly shunning U.S. policies.

Political analysts here said it also would show whether Mexico had made strides toward developing a truly democratic election process after seven decades in which fraud and cronyism kept the PRI in seemingly permanent possession of the presidency.

That changed in 2000, when President Vicente Fox of the PAN defeated the PRI's Labastida Ochoa. But as the run-up to the current election campaign has shown, progress has been in fits and starts.

Madrazo's only serious opponent was Arturo Montiel, a former governor of Mexico state who ran close in the polls with Madrazo. Montiel withdrew from the PRI race Oct. 20 after a nasty campaign against him that included allegations that he and his family were being investigated for shady financial investments. Montiel at first blamed Madrazo for orchestrating the allegations, but didn't mention it when he withdrew.

Earlier this year, the PAN's attorney general and the PRI's congressional majority teamed for an effort to prevent Lopez Obrador from running.

The attorney general accused Lopez Obrador of violating a court order by continuing to build a road in suburban Mexico City, and threatened prosecution. Congress cooperated by stripping Lopez Obrador of immunity. Had the case proceeded, Lopez Obrador would have been barred from running for office while the charges were pending.

But hundreds of thousands of Mexico City voters objected and took to the streets. A besieged Fox responded by accepting the resignation of his attorney general and killing the investigation into Lopez Obrador.

The results of the PAN votes were surprising. Most political observers had predicted that Santiago Creel, Fox's interior minister, would be the party's choice.

But then Calderon launched his campaign, saying the party needed to return to its conservative and Roman Catholic roots. Calderon, 43, beat Creel in all three of the PAN's internal elections, the last of which was Oct. 20.

Creel's defeat was considered a repudiation of Fox, who'd backed him, but Creel's policies may have been too pragmatic for party stalwarts. Calderon is a traditional conservative: pro-business, very religious and opposed to big government.

It's still uncertain how effective Madrazo will be as a candidate for the PRI, which is desperate to regain the presidency. A 53-year-old lawyer associated closely with the PRI's old-style politics, he's charismatic and schooled in power politics.

But polls show consistently that he's the least trusted of the three candidates, and Sunday's voting raised questions about how motivated PRI voters are facing 2006: Only an estimated 4 million voters bothered to go to the polls Sunday, fewer than half the number that turned out in the first PRI primary in 1999.

"The situation as it looks today is that Madrazo is the weakest of the three," political analyst Sergio Aguayo said.

That makes Lopez Obrador the candidate to beat. As a leftist he's pledged not to privatize the national oil company, and he's blamed the PAN and PRI for a rise in corruption, drug-trafficking crimes and poverty.

Lopez Obrador has led the polls for two years. In the most recent, published Nov. 7 by the magazine Milenio, he had 39 percent, Madrazo, 29 percent, and Calderon, 25 percent.

Monday, Madrazo promised a tough campaign and said he'd be seeking alliances with smaller parties to close the gap with Lopez Obrador.

"We learned our lesson in 2000," Madrazo said. "I'm one of the few who thought we should lose ... because we stopped fighting for our causes. We thought the PRI was the only one on the political scene. But Mexico had changed more than we had."

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(The poll questioned 1,000 people and had a 3.2 percentage point margin of error.)

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

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

GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20051104 MEXICO candidates

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