Jorge G. Castañeda
Mexico's Sinking Front Runner
May 8, 2006 issue - Mexico's July 2 presidential election has all of a sudden become a tossup. Polls before last week's debate already showed a close race; former front runner Andrés Manuel López Obrador's decision to forego the debate clearly hurt him and confirmed his decline. The question is how López Obrador managed to lose a 10-point lead in barely more than a month, and what rising star Felipe Calderón from the National Action Party (PAN) can do to consolidate and broaden his support among Mexican voters.
Hubris obviously hurt López Obrador. He refused to participate in the first of two scheduled debates by claiming that his wide lead justified his staying away—just as it justified his recurrent absence at all business-organized events. He has grown exceedingly disrespectful toward still- admired President Vicente Fox, repeatedly urging him to "shut up" and referring to him as a cackling bird. He never responded substantively to Calderón's charge that he was a Mexican version of Venezuela's Hugo Chávez, dismissing the issue by simply saying he had never even talked to Chávez on the phone. And he surrounded himself with the former aides of two of Mexico's most unpopular figures—former presidents Luis Echeverría and Carlos Salinas—though his own party warned him against doing so.
But arrogance and disrespect for the electorate are not sufficient explanation. One underlying reason for López Obrador's collapse lies in his failure to move to the center and separate himself from the more radical stances and factions of his Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), his allies (many ultraleft radical groups in Mexico City) and his foreign sympathizers (Cuba, Venezuela, Bolivia). Mexico remains a terribly conservative country. Mexicans desire change only sporadically and in small doses, and they generally loathe stridency, confrontation and clean breaks with anything.
López Obrador, a former mayor of Mexico City, has failed to consummate this metamorphosis from left-wing rabble-rouser to centrist statesman because his base would not let him. Those supporters are too extremist, too numerous and, in a nutshell, too intent on revolution. They are a minority (not more than 15 percent of the electorate) but a significant one, highly concentrated in two or three regions. They admire Castro and Chávez, and want to repeal NAFTA, renationalize parts of the economy and spend money extravagantly. López Obrador is not part of that base and does not subscribe personally to many of its tenets, but he is, increasingly, its hostage. Winning an election in Mexico on the extreme left of the political spectrum is no easy task.
Another factor is Fox's resurgence. The outgoing president has switched back into campaign mode—what he does best and enjoys most. Daily he takes potshots at López Obrador and flaunts his own administration's achievements. The candidate takes the bait every time, and the achievements are actually considerable. Inflation and interest rates are at their lowest levels ever; foreign reserves and employment are up; consumer credit, anti-poverty programs, health coverage and housing are successfully expanding, and Fox's approval ratings are at a record high. Only the deaths of two steelworkers at a strike the week before last—admittedly at the hands of the Michoacán state police—mar Fox's surprisingly successful conclusion of his term in office. Logically, this helps his party's candidate, Calderón.
The election is still López Obrador's to lose. He has the support of nearly 60 percent of voters in the Mexico City metropolitan area, which accounts for a quarter of the nation's electorate. He has immense resources available to him, drawn licitly and allegedly illicitly (though he's denied it) from Mexico City's $8 billion-a-year budget. He inspires devotion, at times of a fanatical nature, among the country's poor, and they are a majority. He has shown himself to be incredibly resilient in the past, shrugging off one apparently fatal blow after another. He is not finished.
Can Calderón win? The very fact that the question is being asked marks a sea change. Nearly everyone had taken López Obrador's victory for granted. The outcome, much too close to call, will now depend on several factors: who can move faster and more clearly to the center—Calderón from the right or López Obrador from the left; whether Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) candidate Roberto Madrazo continues to sink, allowing many of his followers to switch over to Calderón to head off a left-wing triumph, and finally, whether Fox stays on a roll. For the moment, it looks as if Mexico has a real thriller on its hands—and López Obrador has no one but himself to blame.