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.
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
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