Recount Déjà Vu

I thought that by moving nearly 2,000 miles from Washington I could finally put the 2000 U.S. election -- and its 37 extra days -- behind me. But it turns out Mexicans are raising the dreaded R-word.

Jorge Montaño, a former Mexican ambassador to the United States, told The Washington Post that the race between populist Andres Manuel López Obrador and conservative Felipe Calderón is so close that for the first time in history his country may face a recount.

"Either one of the two can win," he said in an interview. "Unless something magic happens, I don't know what is going to decide it -- perhaps futbol," he said referring to the distractions caused by Mexico's obsession with World Cup soccer.

For now, Mexico's Federal Electoral Institute has convinced everyone to play nice -- at least for a few minutes. All of the major party candidates signed a "pact" Tuesday promising that if the outcome of the July 2 vote is close, they will only contest the results in the courts. In other words, no marching through the streets, lighting things on fire or shooting at anybody's wife -- even if it's just a fake assassination attempt. Outgoing President Vicente Fox is even pledging not to meddle, which would be a shift from his behavior so far.

But there is deep skepticism that the pact is worth much more than the paper it was signed on. Historian Lorenzo Meyer, citing the rising hostilities in the campaign, said there is reason to worry about a close vote.

"If it happens in a country like Sweden, I suppose there wouldn't be much of a problem," he said. "But here, there's almost a pathological hatred between the campaign teams of the two leading candidates. The atmosphere is charged with negative emotions."

There's plenty of nastiness to back up Meyer's point.

As my mother taught me, what goes around, comes around. And that means Calderón, the National Action Party candidate, has been taking more of the incoming fire lately after playing the role of attack dog for weeks. The Democratic Revolutionary Party, known by its Spanish abbreviation PRD, has accused business leaders of "coercing" workers to vote for Calderón. Employees at the industrial giant Infra complained they were forced to watch a 15-minute biographical video of Calderón, complete with childhood snapshots and his campaign slogan, "Manos Limpias," or Clean Hands.

Mexico City's tabloid, La Jornada, has blaring headlines accusing Calderón's friends in the Fox administration of offering employees a slew of enticements. The alleged goodies include cold cash, (200-300 pesos, which is no more than $30), two days vacation and "un lunch."

"Not even the PRI was this bad," workers said.

Meanwhile, the Calderón camp can't seem to shake the running saga of Diego Zavala, the highly successful entrepreneur and brother-in-law of Calderón. AMLO has accused Zavala's software firm of receiving favorable government contracts while Calderón was in the Fox cabinet. Calderón and Zavala deny the charges, but their rebuttal hasn't gotten nearly as much attention as the initial charge.

Boo, Hoo

Linking your opponent to radical leftist Hugo Chávez is perfectly acceptable in a campaign, according to Calderón's strategists who smeared López Obrador with television spots claiming the PRD candidate is playing footsie with the firebrand Venezuelan president. But now, with the tables turned, Calderón's people are down on attack ads. Targeting a family member crosses an unacceptable line, Juan Zavala, a top Calderón adviser who also happens to be Diego Zavala's brother, told The Washington Post recently.

Diego Zavala is urging López Obrador to pull radio and television spots that refer to him as "el cuñado incómodo," or "the uncomfortable brother-in-law." Reforma headlines its Zavala story (registration required) with a quote from the brother-in-law himself: 'AMLO Hurt My Feelings.'

In a live chat with yesterday, former Mexican foreign minister Jorge Castañeda said it appears López Obrador is benefiting from the so-called scandal.

"While everything seems to indicate that the charges of corruption against Calderón's brother in law are false, they seem to have taken quite a toll and with the World Cup in full swing, it's not clear that anybody is paying attention anymore to Calderón's rebuttal of those charges," Castañeda said. "And also I would add, his response has not been particularly effective."

For those of you interested in learning more about Castaneda's reaction to the campaign thus far -- warning, it isn't pretty -- he's penned a column for Reforma (registration required). In the piece, he complains about the "you're corrupt" -- "no, you're more corrupt" tit for tat, and he suggests that average Mexicans are being neglected by elites in the race.

The Horse Race

The latest poll in Reforma gives López Obrador a slight edge. The survey of 2,100 registered voters, taken June 9-11, also found that last week's debate had minimal effect on voters' choices.

For you political junkies, Reforma devotes an entire page inside to dissecting the poll results. We can't offer you a link, but go to the Reforma home page, click on the print edition, page 6, and it'll be there in full color.

-- Ceci Connolly

By |  June 15, 2006; 9:06 AM ET  | Category:  Campaign Conexión
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Interesting and enlightening to read about this under-reported election.

Posted by: Michael | June 15, 2006 11:20 AM

I read with disgust the transcript of yesterday's conversation with Jorge Castañeda. This gentleman, who used to align with the left, even penning a biography of Che Guevara, went to work for the current right-wing Mexican government. Sincere change of heart or plain power thirst? He's the same who branded, in a press conference, Mexican journalists "lazy" for not reading English. Mr. Castañeda's popularity was so strong after leaving government service, that the electoral preferences for his independent presidential candidacy barely registered. Who's talking "elitism" here? Was he invited because he is fluent in English, thanks to the help of an affluent family background that very few in Mexico enjoy? I hope that Ceci does the homework and finds, for fairness sake, somebody whitout such a big ax to grind as Mr. Castañeda's, somebody who can offer a lees biased comment on the election. Otherwise a counter-argument to the disingenous acussations of Mr. Castañeda against Mr. López's governance of Mexico City is, in my opinion, more than warranted.

Posted by: pasilla | June 15, 2006 01:30 PM

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