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Mexico's Race Down to the Wire

Prepared by: Michael Moran
June 20, 2006

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Of all the dark scenarios regularly gamed by U.S. national security experts, one, in particular, leaves them at almost a complete loss: a collapse of order in Mexico. Luckily, no credible expert views Mexico as a candidate for serious instability. For all its struggles with uncontrolled emigration and drug-related crime, the upcoming elections could cement the democratic reforms of the past decade permanently into Mexico's political system, writes historian Enrique Krauze in Foreign Affairs. This new Council Special Report advises Washington to improve relations with its southern neighbor through fairer trade polices with Mexico, aid targeted at Mexican infrastructure, and enhanced technical assistance to help Mexican authorities combat drug cartels and bolster security in border regions.

The July 2 poll (ElectionGuide.org), a three-way affair between Mexico's dominant parties, will result in a new president and a new legislature. The presidential contest is boiling down to a tight race between the leftist PRD's candidate, Mexico City's populist mayor, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, and Felipe Calderon, a market-oriented former cabinet member from the conservative PAN party which also produced the current president, Vicente Fox.

Great stakes exist for the United States. While both Lopez Obrador and Calderon oppose the idea now afoot in America of mass deportations of undocumented Mexican immigrants and militarization of the Mexican border, they hold very different ideas on how to get the flow of migrants north under control (LAT). This Backgrounder from CFR.org's Esther Pan outlines the border issues animating the current U.S. immigration debate.

In the race's final weeks, as Lopez Obrador's once commanding lead in polls vanished, the two main candidates began trading allegations of corruption and incompetence. Calderon has been accused of funneling state largesse to his relatives during his time as energy minister (ChiTrib). Lopez Obrador is said by his opponent to have an incompetent socialistic plan to spend money without regard for the health of the economy (Dallas Morning News). Lopez Obrador felt compelled to specifically pledge this week not to allow inflation or taxes to rise (Bloomberg). For more from the candidates, Lally Weymouth, Newsweek's venerable interviewer, scored Q&As with both frontrunners as the vote approaches.

North of the border, of course, the perspective is somewhat skewed, with immigration and the perceived leftward drift of Latin America as a region as virtual obsessions. Yet Mexicans, like voters everywhere, tend to care far more about "pocketbook issues." Jorge Casteneda, a former Mexican foreign minister, writes in Foreign Affairs that Americans need to bear in mind this fact, as well as Latin America's unparalleled economic inequality, when considering the vote's results.

Does this translate into a populist victory? Not necessarily, at least if Calderon succeeds in convincing what Mexican paper El Universal calls the country's "Wal-Mart voters" that he is more economically competent. "The combination of inequality and democracy tends to cause a movement to the left everywhere," writes Casteneda. "The impoverished masses vote for the type of policies that, they hope, will make them less poor."

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