Follow the (Campaign) Money

It doesn't matter what country you're in. These days, elections are all about money -- who's got it, where did it come from and what can be done for the folks who don't have much of it.

With less than two weeks to Election Day here, news organizations and government regulators report on big advertising purchases by all of the candidates, but especially by Felipe Calderón, the conservative candidate who gained ground throughout the spring but now appears in a dead heat with liberal Andres Manuel López Obrador.

From Jun 10-16, Calderón 's campaign spent 42.5 million pesos on more than 2,000 radio and TV spots, according to an analysis by El Universal.

So how does campaign finance work in Mexico? Richard Boudreaux provided a good campaign primer in the June 12 Los Angeles Times: "By U.S. standards, Mexican election campaigns are highly regulated and well mannered. Mexico's Federal Electoral Institute allocates each presidential candidate $60 million in public funds and caps spending at $80 million," he wrote. "Corporate donations are outlawed, and contributions by individuals are limited to $100,000 per candidate. Candidates' speeches and ads must refrain from defaming opponents."

Keep in mind that in 2000, the leading candidates broke the caps and snuck in extra cash. Even so, the Mexican spending is pennies compared to presidential campaigns in the United States. The Washington Post's Tom Edsall reported after the 2004 race that total spending "seeking to influence the outcome exceeded $1.7 billion." More than $925 million was spent in support of Democrat John F. Kerry, compared with at least $822 million in support of President Bush.

All Politics Is Pocketbook

Of course, voters -- Mexican and American -- are much more interested in what a candidate will do for them financially. And here in this country of extreme gaps in wealth, with about 40 percent of the population living in poverty, it is the central theme in the race.

The San Francisco Chronicle weighed in with an analysis of Mexico's economy under PAN's Vicente Fox: "Much of the undercurrent to the election debate revolves around one important question: After six years of Fox's free-market policies, is Mexico on its way to becoming a first-world economy, or is it stuck in a rut that gives millions of its people little choice but to look for work in the United States?"

And some high-tech indicators suggest Mexico is going in the wrong direction. The Chronicle offers these sobering statistics:

"Mexico ranked 55th in technological competitiveness in a 2005-2006 report by the World Economic Forum, down from 44th place in 2001. China ranked 50th in the report, up from 64th place in 2001. After overtaking Mexico two years ago as the second-largest exporter to the United States after Canada, China now accounts for almost 15 percent of U.S. imports, while Mexican exports account for only 13 percent. In the apparel industry, Mexico's exports to the United States have declined by $1.5 billion since 2000."

You Know It's Bad When ...

... even your party's nominee declares you a dinosaur. That's what Roberto Madrazo had to say about the PRI, or Institutional Revolutionary Party. "Madrazo: The old PRI is dead and there is no way to resuscitate it." In the exclusive interview with La Jornada a Mexico City tabloid that leans to the left, Madrazo goes on to clarify that what's gone is the crooked PRI of the past. He says he represents the "new" PRI. He also describes Calderón, who can come off as the mild-mannered wonk in the race, as having a short fuse that can catch "like a match."

For a better understanding of what's happened to the PRI -- from powerhouse to puppy -- read Danna Harman's insightful assessment in The Christian Science Monitor:

"Formed in the 1920s after the Mexican Revolution, the PRI historically focused on maintaining stability and remaining in power -- not on ideology," she explains. "It was a party founded on beliefs diverse enough to produce left-leaning President Lazaro Cardenas who nationalized the oil industry in the 1930s and conservative President Miguel Aleman, who filled his cabinet with businessmen in the late 1940s. Since being voted out of power six years ago, the PRI has come to define itself mainly as what it is not."

Although it was Vicente Fox who tossed the PRI out of the presidential palace in 2000, the party's electoral percentages have been steadily declining since 1982, according to The Herald. It's "voto duro," or "hardline vote," is now estimated to be well under 30 percent.

Hand-Wringing and Wrist-Slapping

The upset over "U.S.-style" negative campaigning has reached fever pitch, with mainstream media trying for a down-the-middle assessment of the growing hostilities and columnists engaged in finger pointing.

Kenneth Emmonds writes in El Universal, "Today the uneducated are told that the party has satellites overhead that monitor voting, and a betrayal vote will bring dire consequences to the voter and his family. The internet and message-receiving cell phones have registered at least 7 million anonymous messages saying things like, 'López Obrador is a danger to Mexico.' No one is sure who does this, but a finger of suspicion points at the National Action Party (PAN), whose candidate, Felipe Calderón, is running neck-and-neck with Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the former Mexico City mayor."

Respected columnist Raymundo Riva Palacio places a good bit of blame on the media, particularly a handful of unnamed, biased reporters and pundits who he says have not shaken off the old yellow journalism ways.

Even Cardinal Norberto Rivera Carrera is pleading for peace. In comments after Sunday mass, the Roman Catholic leader urged the candidates and their supporters to accept the July 2 results even if the victory margin is a single vote.

For my taste, it's all quite colorful, but hardly the sort of dirty tricks that would make voters north of the border cry foul. As some commentators rightly point out, this is what democracy's all about.

-- Ceci Connolly

By Editors |  June 20, 2006; 7:30 AM ET  | Category:  Campaign Conexión
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Nice piece, Ceci! However, I found the following statement somewhat confusing:

"Although it was Vicente Fox who tossed the PRI out of the presidential palace in 2000, the party's electoral percentages have been steadily declining since 1982..."

What does Fox's victory relates to declining voting percentages for the PRI? Did you mean "Since" instead of "Although"?

Posted by: pasilla | June 20, 2006 04:20 PM

I think the key question for Mexico's voters is not whether "Fox's free market policies" have succeeded or failed, but rather, what is the alternative? Despite significant progress in implementing market reforms, much more liberalization remains to be done. Mexico's rigid labor laws and commercial codes, supported by a militant and overbearing organized labor establishment, continue to be the main impediments to job creation. Were it not for the reforms championed by Fox, Zedillo and Salinas, Mexico would be in even worse shape.

Posted by: Hayek (not Salma) | June 20, 2006 04:46 PM

What good are those rigid labor and commercial codes if neither is enforced uniformly. Mexico suffers from weak institutions that cannot implement the rule of law in the absence of the rule of corruption. If anything, Mexico needs to be able to enforce its laws in order to promote certainty and respect for the entire legal system throughout its society. A large part of the short comings of Salinas, Zedillo, and Fox can be chalked up to the entrenched corruption and the cynical response to any government intiative by a populace that no longer has any faith in public institutions.

More "reforms" won't help if they don't encourage the rule of law.

Posted by: El Naco | June 20, 2006 06:37 PM

Curuption? Do not tell me that there is not in USA if everybody know that the USA is the most perfect curuption system in the world Where TV Networks, Newspapers and all the media never talk about crime, poverty and allt that kind of matter that you always see in other countries but never talk about in your own one, We the people that have lived in diferent countries can say that they are many things that have been hided and the people up there in the gov and together with the American media like to better keep in secret and prefer to show another countries in like the worse places ever. You Talk about Mexico only When you have something bad to say or show but never show How many Mexican have an University degree In Mexico if you do not have an University degree you are nobody) as per that most of the people want to go to school, Here in the states people is uneducated and they not even know What is going on in the other parts of the world, Why do never talk about Mexico's being the 10th economy of the world? How people really lives there and not just the poor people, Poverty???? There is about 30 % of the American people that live under the poverty line and Why you do not say that? There are many thing that you need to look into and not say What you see or hear on Tv o newspaper because you only make fool of yourself

Posted by: Cancun | June 20, 2006 07:49 PM

I don't think one should dismiss the posibility of real political turmoil in Mexico. Alot of the underlying class tensions left over from the Mexican Revolution were for 70 years mitigated by the PRI's rule. With the PRI all but moribund many of these class tensions are no longer being kept under control.

Posted by: Todd | June 21, 2006 01:09 AM

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