TOPICS > Politics

Mexico’s Presidential Contenders Crisscross the Country on Eve of Vote

June 30, 2006 at 6:10 PM EDT

RAY SUAREZ: Mexico is doing something new: holding a highly-competitive presidential campaign that could lead to the second consecutive transfer of power to a new political party, a real hallmark of democracy.

As the candidates crisscrossed the country in a final, furious rush of campaigning, more than one man really had a chance to win, even after one party, the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, held a monopoly of power for so long. Mexicans have overcome their distrust of elections in a very short time.

Six years after the PRI’s seven-decade monopoly was broken by President Vicente Fox and his National Action Party, the country has reached a defining moment, according to veteran immigrants rights campaigner Primitivo Rodriguez.

PRIMITIVO RODRIGUEZ, Immigrants Rights Campaigner: Why is this election so important? Because we may see very clearly that Mexico is already part of the democratic countries around the world; that Mexico has elections the same way the United States, France, or, for that matter, Brazil in Latin America or Costa Rica.

We’re no longer the country where a perfect dictatorship used to rule our lives. Our leaders are there, are in power due to ballots, not to bullets, not to fraud.

RAY SUAREZ: Many parties jumped into the fray, but three men are way ahead in the final polls: Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, former mayor of Mexico City and nominee of an alliance of left-wing parties, led by the Revolutionary Democratic Party, or PRD; Roberto Madrazo, president of the PRI and former governor of the state of Tabasco; and Felipe Calderon, PAN nominee and former energy minister.

A week before Election Day, his party filled the cavernous Azteca Stadium in the capital. Flanked by his wife and kids, Calderon stressed political continuity, jobs, the risk to Mexico of electing his opponents, and his own preparation for the job.

FELIPE CALDERON, PAN Presidential Candidate (through translator): I’m ready for the responsibility that lies ahead. I’m prepared, professionally and spiritually, for the job. All my life, I have prepared myself for this, because I know the problems of Mexico, because I know the alternatives to resolve them, because I have the experience. I tell you with absolute tranquility of conscience that I am ready to be the next president of Mexico.

RAY SUAREZ: Calderon promises to continue Mexico’s integration into the world economy, welcoming investment and economic stability. He presents himself as both the continuation of the policies implemented by President Vicente Fox and the safe alternative to his left-wing rival, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador.

ANDRES MANUEL LOPEZ OBRADOR, PRD Presidential Candidate (through translator): We’re going to bring our people out of the past, out of poverty, and end their marginalization. That’s what this movement is all about.

It’s not the same, old fight, like, “You get out of the way so I can take over.” It’s not a fight for the sake of power. It’s not even a fight about money. It has fallen to me to lead this movement. I have been placed in this position, and I’m going to act with rectitude. I’m going to deliver for the people.

RAY SUAREZ: But which people? Lopez Obrador’s potent slogan is “For the good of all, but first for the poor.” And while all the candidates have some crossover appeal, Lopez Obrador supporters cheer when their man describes his plans to collect unpaid taxes from the wealthy and renegotiate the part of NAFTA that exposed farmers of beans and corn to American competition.

Lopez Obrador’s appeal to lower-income Mexicans is clear at a Mexico City street fair on the feast of St. John the Baptist, where Claudia Martinez sells roast corn.

CLAUDIA MARTINEZ, Street Vendor (through translator): The most important thing, I think, is that he will help the citizens, people like us who make a living selling as merchants.

RAY SUAREZ: In the industrial city of Toluca, where Juan Manuel Moreno works for the local government…

JUAN MANUEL MORENO, Lopez Obrador Supporter (through translator): I think that Lopez Obrador is capable. He’s honest; he’s responsible; he’s hard-working.

In the administration he’s just finished in Mexico, the government of the city has the least expensive public transportation in the country, has better employment opportunities. He created a public university for the people with low incomes and for those over 40.

RAY SUAREZ: And Lopez Obrador attracts support from many Mexico City residents who are well past the age of 40. The Salon Los Angeles (ph) is a Mexico City dance hall where older residents take to the floor twice a week and show off their moves to Latin big band music.

Their social benefits were raised by Lopez Obrador during his term as mayor of Mexico City. And now he’s pledging to do the same for elderly Mexicans all over the country.

GONZALO LECHUGA, Lopez Obrador Supporter (through translator): Right now, I have the support of Lopez Obrador. His support he gives to those people who are 70 and older. So for us, he is the ideal person to be elected on July 2nd, Election Day, to lead our country.

Making dark comparisons

Luis Rubio
Center of Research for Development
Lopez Obrador has identified a fundamental problem. I don't think that he has diagnosed it correctly, but he has identified the correct problem. I don't think he has a solution to the problem or the right solution.

RAY SUAREZ: But it's just those ideas -- raising government spending to benefit the poor, funding new schools, protecting domestic industries -- that have wealthier Mexicans worried and supporting...

ALEX REIDER, Student: Felipe Calderon.

RAY SUAREZ: OK. Can you tell me why?

ALEX REIDER: Because I think he has the best -- I don't know, the best ideas, and mainly to -- I don't know, to like compensate against Lopez Obrador.

RAY SUAREZ: Now, why are you worried about Lopez Obrador?

ALEX REIDER: Because he's going to be a dictator. Like, you can see an example like Hugo Chavez, like the Venezuelan president. And I don't know, he's a wacko. He's a crazy guy, just like got power and now nobody knows what he's going to do with the power, so...

MARCO RIVERA, Civil Servant: Yes, definitely Calderon.


MARCO RIVERA: Best proposals, best economic team. Of the other two options, most definitely one is just going stepping backwards. I mean, I'd be ashamed to be a Mexican citizen just having Chavez, Evo and Castro in the same picture. They just make me terrified. They're terrifying.

RAY SUAREZ: Do you really think that the PRD is a left-of-center party of that stripe, as extreme as Morales, nationalizing...

MARCO RIVERA: Well, it's not just Lopez Obrador. It's the entire team.

RAY SUAREZ: Hugo Chavez isn't running for office in Mexico, but he got talked about a lot this campaign season, in commercials that compared Lopez Obrador to the Venezuelan president that the electoral commission ordered pulled off the air.

The campaign commercials, the air war, got pretty rough: charges of corruption and dishonesty flew; spots accused Calderon of enriching his political friends, of having dirty hands, and creating no jobs while in government; spots called Calderon and Lopez Obrador liars and called the left-of-center candidate a danger to Mexico.

And some of it stuck.

LUIS RUBIO, Political Scientist: Lopez Obrador is not a Chavez. Lopez Obrador is not a crazy man.

RAY SUAREZ: Luis Rubio is president of the Center of Research for Development, a Mexican think-tank.

LUIS RUBIO: In my view, Lopez Obrador has identified a fundamental problem. I don't think that he has diagnosed it correctly, but he has identified the correct problem. I don't think he has a solution to the problem or the right solution.

Calderon has a better proposal, not a perfect proposal, but he has not recognized and realized the profound need to transform structures and institutions in the country.

RAY SUAREZ: In his final speech of the campaign, Lopez Obrador responded to the charges that he'll be an autocrat, a man with messianic tendencies, and that his policies are a threat to Mexico.

ANDRES MANUEL LOPEZ OBRADOR (through translator): We're going to make changes by consensus. My strength is not revenge. I don't hate; I'm a happy man. The only thing I want is for us all to live in a better society, with no privileges, where there are no Mexicans of first or second class, but where we all are the same.

A fighting underdog

RAY SUAREZ: The left and right, the yellow and blue, are ferociously critical of each other. Where does that leave the party that ruled Mexico for most of the 20th century?

Roberto Madrazo is running a distant third in the national polls, but the PRI is still the largest national party, with a plurality of seats in the Mexican Congress and a majority of state governors. Madrazo is struggling to re-brand the old party of government power, not ideology, into the new home for Mexican centrists.

ROBERTO MADRAZO, PRI Presidential Candidate (through translator): On the campaign trail, we have seen that our country cannot take it any more. Mexico cannot go back to the political adventure like the one that began in the year 2000. Mexico cannot take that any more.

It's not an adventure from the right, nor one from the left. Mexico demands today a government that is sensible, prudent, effective, tolerant, democratic, and with social support. And that only the PRI, the PRI can offer through its alliance for Mexico.

DAN LUND, Pollster: What happens to the PRI voters?

RAY SUAREZ: American-born pollster Dan Lund has studied voting patterns in Mexico for the past 30 years and says that, since the campaign began, that's been the essential question.

DAN LUND: The largest group of disciplined, regular voters belong to the PRI. But ever since 1997, the first competitive election Mexico ever had, really, those PRI voters have been, in general, comfortable with splitting their ballots, voting for the PRI locally and somebody else nationally.

Sifting through the issues

Katalina Duenac
All I ask is that whoever it is should help us, to pick us up because we're thrown on the ground. ... We just want them to help us pick ourselves up because we're down, without water, without anything to help us.

RAY SUAREZ: Politically, Mexicans have to live with the paradox of one national party out of national favor and two small, but growing parties that can't yet run the country, but will supply the next president.

Most Mexicans will choose between these very different men. Socially, Mexicans have to face some other paradoxes.

One Mexico is confident and international, optimistic and increasingly affluent; the other possessing a hard-earned suspicion of promises of the powerful and a cynicism about a government, any government's ability to improve their lives.

Where the wealthy see a more stable and growing economy, the poor have been left with the promise of long-term gain for short-term pain. The taco seller in a poor neighborhood makes little more than five dollars a day and worries about the price of gas to run his griddle. Vicente Fox's freer-trading Mexico hasn't been an improvement.

TACO SELLER (through translator): Maybe it's worse than before, because so many people lost their jobs. Many are just on the streets. There has to be more equity, more work for everyone, so that all of us have jobs and we don't go to the United States and so we're here, content.

RAY SUAREZ: Huge trucks rumble through the town of Tequila, carrying Mexican exports north to the U.S. and American exports south. The agave plants that will become tequila grow in the surrounding fields, and tequila sellers have tough, new competitors from Arkansas.

LEONCIA MERCADO, Tequila Vendor (through translator): If you go to Wal-Mart to buy a bottle of tequila, you're going to find it cheaper. Why? Because the manufacturers sell them large quantities, you know, 400 or 500 boxes. We can't buy like that. We live by the day.

RAY SUAREZ: During conversations with a lot of struggling Mexicans, it was common to hear that there wasn't much difference between the candidates, that they were all liars and thieves.

Of all the Mexicans who said that, Katalina Duenac had paid the highest price for that right. She's one of Mexico's garbage pickers. Her home, and often her food, comes from the nearby dumps that fill the air with a terrible stench.

She has no electricity or running water, no health care. And now even that tiny living reclaimed from piles of garbage is under threat from new government contracts with private recyclers. I asked if she preferred one candidate over another.

KATALINA DUENAC, Mexican Citizen (through translator): All I ask is that whoever it is should help us, to pick us up because we're thrown on the ground. We don't want to be rich, because they keep all the wealth. We just want them to help us pick ourselves up because we're down, without water, without anything to help us.

RAY SUAREZ: The campaign is over. No more rallies; no more commercials. Before ending his race, Felipe Calderon made a very specific prediction.

FELIPE CALDERON (through translator): On Sunday, at this very moment, the elections will be under way peacefully. At around 11:00 at night, the president of the electoral committee will announce the largest turnout in the history of Mexico, and in that intense battle we will have won by 1.5 million votes.

RAY SUAREZ: Pollsters have Calderon trailing, but by a percentage within the margin of error. When asked by a NewsHour producer if he'll respect the results, Lopez Obrador replied with optimism, "Yes, of course. In a democracy, you either win or lose," he said. "But we're going to win."

Mexico readies for an election

Ray Suarez
NewsHour Senior Correspondent
There are some questions about the legitimacy of the winner that emerges from Monday's vote. It's expected that whoever wins is going to be the winner with less than 40 percent of the overall votes cast because there are so many candidates.

JIM LEHRER: Margaret Warner got a late update from Ray earlier this evening.


RAY SUAREZ: Margaret, good to talk to you.

MARGARET WARNER: You all ended your piece by asking Lopez Obrador if he would respect the results of this election; is that an issue?

RAY SUAREZ: Well, there are some questions about the legitimacy of the winner that emerges from Monday's vote. It's expected that whoever wins is going to be the winner with less than 40 percent of the overall votes cast because there are so many candidates.

This is, keep in mind, a candidate that has had himself compared to Latin American strongmen and dictators for the past six months, so he may be a little sensitive about that subject. But the independent electoral commission has been reassuring the people of Mexico and the political parties that this is going to be a clean vote and that they shouldn't try to challenge the results come Monday.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, what difference does it make to Americans who wins this election?

RAY SUAREZ: Well, unlike Vicente Fox, who began his term and campaigned for president of Mexico in 2000 by calling immigrants to the United States, legal and illegal, "heroes" because they supported the Mexican economy through their remittances with great personal self-sacrifice, the three major candidates in this race are at best ambivalent toward the large numbers of their countrymen who head north to find work, even though the money they send back to their families and their hometowns are an important part of the Mexican economy.

They also see it as shame and a loss to Mexico that these strong, young workers, some who are very entrepreneurial and ambitious, feel that they have to leave the country to make it.

MARGARET WARNER: Do you think there will be any difference in the way the Mexican government approaches the immigration controversy, at least controversy on this side of the border, depending on who wins?

RAY SUAREZ: Well, you know, it depends on who you ask. Just recently, I was speaking to the former Mexican foreign minister, Jorge Castaneda. And I put that question to him, and he said that the years of discussions between the Bush and Fox administrations about immigration would now be swept away if Lopez Obrador won.

But, keep in mind, that Foreign Minister Castaneda is a Calderon supporter. He believes that the continuity provided by the National Action Party, the PAN, would leave that conversation between the two countries in much better shape.

MARGARET WARNER: Has there been any backlash or any heated rhetoric in this campaign about the heated rhetoric north of the border here about Mexican immigration, in other words, the talk of securing the border, building a fence, sending the National Guard, all of that?

RAY SUAREZ: Well, as the pitch has been rising in the United States, the pitch of the reaction in Mexico has been rising, as well. There is some offense taken to the way that Mexican immigrants are being discussed in the United States, both legal and illegal.

There is some recognition that there is a problem, that there's a domestic Mexican problem that results in this kind of cross-border migration, but there also is some hurt feelings and some outrage at the way it's being discussed in the United States Congress.

I was speaking to one civil servant at a campaign rally the other day, and he said: You know, those people are forgetting that we're adding a lot of value to the United States economy by going up there and working at the wages that we do and doing work that the United States wants us to do and needs us to do.

MARGARET WARNER: So is immigration really a hot issue in this election or marginal?

RAY SUAREZ: It's really more a marginal issue that's part of the overall discussion of the economic problems.

It's not a central focus of the campaign for any of the major candidates, but it does come up when they talk about the state of the Mexican economy, because there's a widespread recognition that the economy is not creating enough jobs to keep up with the natural increase in the population and not creating enough jobs at decent wages so that people can support a family, save some money, have a stake in the future.

MARGARET WARNER: And then how high a turnout is expected?

RAY SUAREZ: Well, turnout is a tough thing to call. Pollsters have been predicting turnout in the 50s, but in the last election in 2000 they also predicted turnout in the 50s, and the turnout was closer to 65 percent. And Vicente Fox squeaked in with a 1 percent margin.

Part of the problem is that, if you're doing nationwide polling, which is largely done by telephone, there are so many households in Mexico that don't have a telephone, so many rural households that can't be interviewed by poll-testers and door-knockers, people who go out and make person-to-person contact.

So the pollsters admit that they have a very soft fix on what the rural and poorest Mexican voters intend to do on Sunday.

MARGARET WARNER: And briefly, you said that whoever wins would be probably less than 40 percent of the vote. But is it a final result? In other words, whoever wins wins, no runoff?

RAY SUAREZ: Like the United States, Mexico has a first-past-the-post, winner-take-all presidential electoral system. So, if you finish with 35 percent of the vote and everybody else has less, you're the winner.

MARGARET WARNER: Great talking to you, Ray. Thanks.

RAY SUAREZ: Thanks, Margaret.

JIM LEHRER: And Ray will be back Monday night with a report on the election results.