Football 1, Presidential Campaign 0

Soccer, soccer, soccer. It's everywhere here in Mexico and it's enough to make a political blogger jealous.

And just imagine how the presidential candidates must feel. Here it is the home stretch in the national elections and the contenders are drawing some of their biggest crowds in two years of campaigning. But all the talk in the bars, at the Wal-Mart and in the media is Mexico's beloved "futbol."

Manuel Roig-Franzia, my partner down here, wrote in Saturday's Washington Post that the World Cup "has given Mexicans entranced by the fortunes of their hard-luck team all the excuses they needed to blissfully tune out a Mexican presidential campaign growing nastier by the day. Griping about political smears is out. Gossiping about Oswaldo Sánchez, Mexico's heartthrob goaltender, is in. "'Look, we need a distraction,' said Gerardo Rodriguez, a candy seller who steered his two sons, each dressed in bright green replica jerseys, through the crowd. 'No one is talking about the campaign -- that's all garbage. It's pure soccer now.'"

One cartoonist came up with a soccer-inspired way for IFE, Mexico's election commission, to lure more people to the ballot box -- see this link.

Mexico's team, by the way, has one win and one tie under its belt so far. Next up is a match vs. Portugal on Wednesday.

Playing the NAFTA Card

The frontrunners, locked in a tie in every survey of late, hit their home turfs over the weekend.

Andres Manuel López Obrador, the populist former Mexico City mayor, whipped up a crowd in the state of Tabasco with promises that he would do away with nepotism and cronyism, a tall order for any leader in this nation, with its long, notorious history of corruption.

AMLO, as he is known here, and his advisers have sent subtle and not-so-subtle hints that if elected he will not abide by certain portions of the NAFTA trade agreement.

For the Good of the Country

Felipe Calderón, the pro-business conservative who graduated from Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, suggested at a rally in Morelia this weekend that now is the time for "unity and reconciliation." For days, he has touted plans to name cabinet members from Mexico's other political parties, hoping his talk of a coalition will appease voters who put party loyalty above all else.

Roberto Madrazo, who trails in the polls despite significant financial help from the once-dominant PRI, is hoping the high road will win him a few votes, or at least keep defections to a minimum.

On the trail, he has taken to reminding voters that he is abiding by the "civility pact" recently signed by all of the presidential campaigns except Roberto Campa, who is polling as close to zero as one can be and still show up on survey results.

Madrazo may be the only person with much confidence in that pact. In fact, it's keeping political cartoonists in business. (See another cartoon here.)

The AMLO Fear Factor

The shorthand among López Obrador's detractors is that he'll be Hugo Chavez-lite, a radical leftist intent on snubbing the U.S. and most things capitalist. In a thorough profile of AMLO, the New York Times's James McKinley Jr. debunks some of those notions:

"But to describe Mr. López Obrador as another populist promising handouts to get votes is to miss the most salient part of his message for his supporters. In their eyes, he is a reformer who has promised to stamp out corruption and make corporations and the rich pay more taxes. He has vowed to end the sweetheart deals for government contracts, to stop the government from bailing out failing businesses and to slash the salaries of top bureaucrats and elected officials, who make far more than their counterparts in the United States. In New York City terms, he wants to dismantle Tammany Hall."

Still, an AMLO victory -- or worse, a too-close-to-call outcome -- has many here nervous about how the masses will react. "With Mexican voters more polarized between rich and poor than at any time since the 1910 revolution, there's talk that the United States' most populous neighbor -- and the main source of its legal and illegal immigration -- could descend into political anarchy and economic crisis in the hours after election night."

"The democracy Mexico has built is fragile," historian Enrique Krauze told the Los Angeles Times. "If the result of the election isn't respected by all parties, there could be chaos. Politics is the fastest theater in the world. Anything could happen."

Perhaps that is why the Dallas Morning News editorial page likes Calderón: "What Mexico needs is someone like Mr. Calderón, who's more likely to consolidate the democratic gains made under Mr. Fox and to continue the economic revitalization that started nearly 20 years ago. Mr. Calderón is the candidate who best understands how Mexico must have private investments to modernize the energy industry, which needs an estimated $25 billion in repairs and improvements. Campaigning as the "employment president," Mr. Calderón knows that the single most important issue for the average Mexican is a decent-paying job."

Final Push

For a couple weeks now columnists have been hitting the "pox on both your households" theme. Jorge Zepeda Patterson, in El Universal, playing on the "uncomfortable brother-in-law" attacks against Calderón, writes about what he sees as the "uncomfortable citizenry." The politicians, he concludes, "have demonstrated they can't be trusted."

Analysts here may be complaining about the campaign nastiness, but Mexico does have one downright civilized election practice the United States would be wise to adopt. All active campaigning and advertising is supposed to conclude on the night of June 28, leaving a full three days of peace and quiet before votes are cast July 2. That means the big push is on right now, with the candidates frenetically barnstorming the country. Stay tuned.

-- Ceci Connolly

By Editors |  June 19, 2006; 8:19 AM ET  | Category:  Campaign Conexión
Previous: López Obrador: Back on Top? | Next: Candidate Q&As: Calderón and López Obrador

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Should we really be afraid of AMLO? It would be a good news story for the American media to build up another Chavez-style Latin American president, but it doesn't seem to ring true.

The real test will be when Chavez comes to visit AMLO, should he win. How will Obrador play off the moves Chavez will no doubt make to paint the PRD victory as part of a larger leftist revolution in the region?

Posted by: Mark Borgschulte | June 22, 2006 12:40 PM

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