Mexican Elections, Off With a Bang. Literally.


So far there has been a purported assassination attempt, complaints of meddling by both the Catholic Church and the sitting president, allegations of influence peddling and whispers that Mexico may be in store for its own version of the U.S. presidential recount of 2000. And this is just Day One.

Welcome to Campaign Conexión, an on-the-ground look at the final three-week sprint of the Mexican presidential campaign. If you missed last week's debate (or perhaps couldn't see it in the States), we'll fill you in. In the coming days, the Campaign Conexión will bring you television spots, exclusive online interviews with powerbrokers and color from the road. And if you have a question, comment or something worth posting, send me a line.

After reporting on five U.S. presidential campaigns, I can tell you that Mexico is a long, long way from the chilly Iowa barns and cozy New Hampshire living rooms where American democracy plays out every four years.

Vicente Fox made history six years ago when he ended 70 years of rule by the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI. Many speculated it was a fluke and that by this spring, the PRI would return to powerhouse status -- far from it. Roberto Madrazo's candidacy has stalled and the only remaining question is whether the Priístas, as PRI loyalists are known, will bail.

"After dominating Mexican politics for 71 years, until Vicente Fox was elected president in 2000, the Institutional Revolutionary Party finds itself in disarray going into the July 2 presidential election." (Miami Herald June 1, by subscription)

More than a half dozen polls have the two leaders -- Andres Manuel López Obrador and Felipe Calderón -- in a statistical tie, with about 20 percent of voters still undecided. In the past two months, the pair's political fortunes have risen and fallen like soufflés. First, López Obrador, the populist candidate of the Party of the Democratic Revolution, was on top. But his numbers collapsed after a series of missteps and hard-hitting advertisements by the Calderón camp.

Calderón, meanwhile, clawed his way to the National Action Party nomination over the objections of Fox, and just continued rising, until Mexico's enormous 'punditocracy' had him all but inaugurated.

That's when the nasty names and the bullets started flying. Asked what to expect in the final weeks, Calderón's brother-in-law Juan Ignacio Zavala told The Washington Post: "Hard and dirty."

Dueling Scandals

For days, the local papers and airwaves have been brimming with two alleged financial scandals -- even beating out the death of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi for above-the-fold play.

Scandal No. 1 has López Obrador, known as AMLO, charging that a software company run by Calderón's brother-in-law profited from favorable government contracts while Calderón was energy secretary under Fox. The Calderón camp, scrambling to tamp out the firestorm, put brother-in-law Diego Zavala in front of the cameras late Thursday.

Zavala, who is the brother of Calderón's wife, Margarita Zavala, then filed the Mexican equivalent of a defamation of character suit against López Obrador on Friday.

Scandal No. 2 started brewing early in the week with heavy pre-debate publicity that a jailed businessman intended to release videotapes showing AMLO cronies receiving payoffs. That would have been especially problematic for the self-proclaimed anti-corruption candidate.

That morning, gunshots were fired at the SUV carrying the businessman's wife, Cecilia Gurza, and her three children. She called it an assassination attempt, others say it looked staged. Either way, no video has been released so far.

How We Got Here

For the better part of two years, López Obrador, the fiery former mayor of Mexico City, held a commanding lead in virtually every poll. The Robin Hood of the race, López Obrador is running on promises of government benefits to single mothers, poor youngsters and a pension for every senior citizen. He has plans to build subsidized housing and rail lines, projects he says will create desperately needed jobs, which in turn will keep more Mexicans from crossing into the U.S. in search of work.

His campaign slogan, "Por el Bien de Todos. Primero los Pobres," translates into "For the good of all. First the poor."

By April, López Obrador was feeling so confident that he skipped the first debate, handing his opponents the ever-reliable stunt of setting up an empty podium in his place. Elites here have also been muttering that López Obrador has snubbed well-respected business organizations and the Council on Foreign Relations, delivering back-channel messages that his grassroots campaign won't kowtow to the men in suits.

The Calderón camp, which has been getting informal advice from Texas Republican consultant Rob Allyn and Spanish consultant Antonio Sola, pounced with television spots suggesting López Obrador was cut from the same radical, firebrand cloth as Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez and Mexican rebel leader Subcomandante Marcos. The commercials accused López Obrador of allowing Mexico City to deteriorate on his watch and concluded with a warning that he was "a danger to Mexico."

To understand the impact of the attack ads, read the Chicago Tribune's Hugh Dellios.

Calderón is everything López Obrador is not -- a somber, Harvard-educated, pro-business lawyer a la Mike Dukakis. His slow-but-steady (okay, plodding at times) campaign put him in position to capitalize on fears among some here that López Obrador doesn't quite have the gravitas for the presidency, an office which still commands respect.

In advance of the debate, Alfredo Corchado of the Dallas Morning News traveled with Calderón, to produce a profile that chronicles the former energy secretary's rise.

The Real Contest

Now that we've gotten all that out of the way, take a look here to see what's really got people in Mexico glued to their TV sets.

COMING MONDAY: Debate Recap

By washingtonpost.com |  June 9, 2006; 5:25 PM ET  | Category:  Campaign Conexión
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The second Mexican presidential debate can be seen on Youtube.com:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_1hDSmz6kxk&search=debate%20calderon

Posted by: Carl | June 11, 2006 10:54 AM

good for the post! the mexican election is poorly reported in the us and perhaps this blog will help remedy that. i live 60 miles from the rio and we are often appalled by the views from the east coast elite. jack

Posted by: jack mcnamara | June 11, 2006 12:29 PM

With all the bickering and scandals from Obrador and Calderon, who knows, Madrazo may yet come out the winner. Truth be told, you could melt the three of them and still not have a good one.

Posted by: Erick | June 11, 2006 05:22 PM

Mexicans and Americans Thinking Together (www.MATT.org) has put together a terrific bicultural dialogue since launch on Cinco de Mayo just over a month ago. The site now features a number of articles or posts about the Mexican election.

Posted by: Adam Segal | June 12, 2006 12:11 AM

Does Mexico really have the means to implement AMLO's proposals? His plans to strengthen and expand the social safety net are admirable, but will cause more harm than good if they are not accompanied by programs to encourage investment and growth in productivity. Well-designed programs could ideally accomplish both goals: just redistribution and economic growth. Perhaps his record as mayor of Mexico City can shed some light on his ability to pull this off.

Posted by: Mark Borgschulte | June 12, 2006 11:24 AM

BRAVO for the Washington Post to put an A-list journalist covering such a consequential event for the US -- though you would not know it from the meager, tangential cover this event has in US daily newpaper coverage. Great work, and keep it up, Miss ConnellY (but don't drink the tapwater...)

Posted by: Gabriel | June 12, 2006 11:24 AM

Thanks for giving this much neglected issue front line coverage.

Posted by: Scott | June 12, 2006 12:46 PM

Good insight and introduction to candidates. I especially like the additional links which offer another perspective.

Posted by: Norma | June 13, 2006 04:00 AM

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