MEXICO CITY—A week before they go to the polls to pick a new president, Mexican voters are sharply divided between a firebrand populist who promises to lift up the poor and an establishment conservative who embraces free markets and U.S. style capitalism.
For the first time in modern history, the once dominant PRI, or Institutional Revolutionary Party, is running a distant third and appears to have little chance of recapturing the presidency.
Opinion surveys released Friday—the last day political polls legally could be published here ahead of next Sunday's balloting—showed a statistical dead heat between leftist Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador and conservative Felipe Calderon.
The Reforma and Universal newspapers, perhaps the capital's most influential, each gave Lopez Obrador 36 percent to Calderon's 34 percent, with the PRI's Roberto Madrazo getting just a quarter of the vote.
Averaging 14 major polls conducted in June, political analyst Rafael Gimenez Valdes calculated that just a half percentage point separates the top two candidates. "I think the election is absolutely up in the air," Gimenez Valdes said.
Other analysts, including Maria de Las Heras, who accurately projected President Vicente Fox's upset victory in 2000, give the edge to Lopez Obrador. At a gathering of pollsters on Friday at the respected Colegio de Mexico here, De las Heras predicted Lopez Obrador would win by five points, in part because he has racked up a significant surplus of independent voters.
Only a few more big rallies are planned: by law, all campaigning and advertising must cease after Wednesday. Calderon's final rally is scheduled for Sunday at Mexico City's Azteca Stadium. Lopez Obrador's final event is Wednesday in Mexico City's main square, the Zocalo.
The closeness of the polls and ongoing conflicts in central and southern Mexico have prompted fears of a contested outcome, legal challenges and bloody street protests.
In recent days, clashes between striking school teachers and state police in Oaxaca have grown increasingly violent. Protesting educators, some armed with guns and machetes, last week burned buses and blocked several highways in a dispute over pay and benefits. Calls for a general strike this week have also raised fears that activists will disrupt the voting.
Marco Nunez, a Mexico City political consultant who worked for the federal government for 14 years, said the election and its aftermath will be a big test for Fox, whose conservative National Action Party (PAN) has never overseen a presidential election. Until Fox's win, PRI candidates had held the presidency for seven decades.
"It's very important for the government to control the situation," Nunez said. "It's very important for the world to know that Mexico is politically stable."
The tight race shows the extent to which Fox, who by law can't run for re-election, has failed to rally the country behind the PAN and his would-be successor, Calderon.
Many of the voters who helped Fox sweep away the old regime now feel disillusioned with his six-year reign. While the economy remained stable, most of Fox's promised reforms never got out of a divided Congress, drug violence exploded, and job growth stagnated.
But disappointment with Fox does not directly translate into support for his party's chief opponent, Lopez Obrador, a member of the Party of the Democratic Revolution, or PRD. Many are afraid that the fiery former mayor of Mexico City will jeopardize the close relationship Mexico has with the United States or, worse, spark an economic crisis with runaway inflation and unbridled spending on social welfare.
Calderon, Fox's former energy secretary, has sought to capitalize on those fears by running controversial but effective ads comparing Lopez Obrador to Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chavez and calling him a "danger for Mexico." The Mexican Federal Electoral Institute, which governs campaigning, ordered Calderon to stop running the ads.
The bitterly divided contest has left voters struggling over whether to go with their hearts or their minds—to vote for possibly radical change or stick with a safe, known quantity. Some 12 to 15 percent of voters, many of them young, were still undecided in the latest polls.
Tzinia Chellet, 30, a graduate student at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, said her standard of living has steadily dropped over the last six years. She now eats out once a month instead of once a week, and she said shopping has become like a trip to the museum—"you can look, but you can't buy."
But Chellet, who voted for Fox in 2000, said she's torn. Lopez Obrador? "He scares me," she said. But Calderon and the PAN haven't convinced her either.
"If they didn't get it done in six years, I'm not sure they deserve another chance," Chellet said.
One thing that hasn't changed since 2000 is the steady fall of the PRI. While the party remains competitive in congressional races, also to be decided next Sunday, Madrazo is poised to become the second PRI presidential candidate in modern history to lose. Two minor party candidates remain mired in single digits.
Despite the doomsday scenario of a disputed election with street riots and burning cars, Mexico political analyst Jorge Chabat believes that the outcome will be clear on Election Day.
He noted that at this time six years ago, Fox was running neck-and-neck with the PRI's Francisco Labastida, only to pull ahead and win 43-36.
"Without a doubt, these are the most competitive elections in Mexican history," said Chabat. "But I think the winner will finish with a comfortable margin."
He declined to predict who that would be.
(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
ARCHIVE PHOTOS on KRT Direct (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): LOPEZ OBRADOR, CALDERON
GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): MEXICO CANDIDATES
Need to map