Mexican Campaign Turns Dirty as López Obrador Stretches his Lead

  • Nearly two months into the presidential campaign, the race turns ugly
  • Frontrunner Andrés Manuel López Obrador begins to extend his lead, and is now coming to dominate all political discourse in the country
  • The near slanderous attacks by López Obrador’s opponents reflect a growing level of desperation, and are likely to backfire
  • A disintegrating PRI will profoundly alter Mexico’s political landscape
  • Spain’s Aznar continues his darkling political path

Nearly two months after the three major candidates in Mexico’s presidential race launched their official campaigns on January 19, attention remains almost entirely riveted on current front-runner, the PRD candidate, Andrés Manuel López Obrador. The nearly unassailable popularity of the former Mexico City mayor, who is often identified as the country’s “pink tide” option, has begun to infect his opponents’ campaigns with an increasing dosage of desperation. At the same time, it is more and more unlikely that the obsessive attack strategies that López Obrador’s rivals have adopted in recent days will bear political fruit, and some feel that the salvos of negative campaigning will ultimately consume their authors. What is certain, however, is that the overwhelming focus on the high-riding perredista candidate, both domestically and internationally, has affected every facet of the campaign.

The Aznar Blight
The campaign has intensified since the January kick off, and its singular leitmotif has become the negativity and bitterness that has been engendered. The growth of spleen has been spurred by several factors, including the growing acrimony between López Obrador and the ruling PAN government of Vicente Fox and its candidate, Felipe Calderón. Such discord was fostered by the bizarre February 21 visit to Mexico City by former Spanish Prime Minister José María Aznar, where he publicly endorsed Calderón as the only safe route forward for Mexico. The hard right former political figure, after having become totally discredited at home, and a veritable Flying Dutchman abroad as he bears his ultramontane orb and mace, is now funded by uncertain sources for a variety of unsavory causes with Latin America’s “pink tide” countries drawing his particular ire. With a political message that represents an extreme interpretation of Opus Dei, stresses the institutional virtues of the armed forces, and is infused with an air of Pinochet-like odium for the left, Aznar, like a vulture circling over what he sees as the corruption of the liberal creed, has been laughed out of the Mexican presidential debate.

A Political Fortress
López Obrador has maintained his lead in most polls, with recent surveys by the Mexico City daily El Universal suggesting that he has opened a ten point spread over the ruling party (PAN) candidate Felipe Calderón, who has 32%, with the PRI’s Roberto Madrazo fatally lagging at 24%. These numbers certainly project a number of trends. First, López Obrador’s campaign has begun to gather the momentum that it had lost during the tensely dramatic primary contests to be found in both the PRI and the PAN, which attracted concentrated media attention and diverted the focus from the PRD. Second, Madrazo’s inability to approach and go beyond the 30% mark indicates that his party’s toxic reputation for vast stretches of corruption, human rights abuses, and other social pathologies, may be impossible for even his party’s once vaunted political machine to overcome.

Relentless print and electronic campaigns by Calderón and Madrazo – the former has spent close to 20 million dollars on advertising – have failed to dislodge López Obrador. Indeed, the perredista’s decision to build a grassroots campaign centered around personal visits and countless rural and urban meetings across the country appears to be a winning strategy.

López Obrador has been further buttressed by what appears to be the growing possibility that the PRD might emerge as a powerful national political party. While the PRD lacks some of the strong regional affiliations of the northern-based PAN, or the PRI, which has bastions in the center and south of the country, the widening popularity of the PRD’s presidential figure may buoy the hopes of perredistas elsewhere. Pollster Dan Lund of Mundamericas has noted that it is on the strength of López Obrador’s coattails that the PRD candidate for the mayorship of Mexico City, Marcelo Ebrard, is predicted to win in a landslide. Lund further observed that following a López Obrador tour through the state of Hidalgo, “the PRD more than doubled their vote total and increased from holding 10 municipal governments to 23. The gains were in the areas visited by López Obrador.” While the recent legislative and municipal elections in the Estado de Mexico (the small but heavily populated state that surrounds Mexico City) pointed to big gains by the leftwing party – increasing the PRD’s take of congressional seats by 10, winning 23 more municipalities and attracting to its banner an additional 10% of the vote – it remains to be seen whether the trickle-down “López Obrador effect” will be able to fan out farther from the former mayor’s Mexico City stronghold. There are indications, however, that the PRD may fare even better than expected in nationwide legislative elections, and could succeed in splitting the vote equally between the three parties, an important consideration for the ultimate legislative success or failure of a López Obrador government.

Desperate Measures
As their campaigns fail to gain traction against the electoral inevitability of a López Obrador victory, both Calderón and Madrazo have gone on the offensive, choosing to launch nasty sorties against the frontrunner, attacking his person and policies, and parroting almost Washington-esque fearmongering allegations. Here is where Aznar’s pitiful performance played out. Such awe and thunder charges, which generally consist of varieties of the old saw that the PRD candidate is a dangerous populist who represents a return to the country’s unstable old ways, have long been voiced (albeit in an imprudent manner) by President Fox, although with seemingly little impact.

An undoubtedly frustrated Calderón was the first to switch to such slash and burn rhetoric, asserting at a March 10 rally in Cuernavaca that López Obrador was receiving support from Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez, who was financing “Bolivarian cells” in the country. The panista went on to call for the electoral authorities to launch an investigation of this alleged backing, which he asserted also consisted of financial contributions to the PRD campaign. These outrageously bogus charges, which more have the aroma of invention than serious revelation, are wholly unsubstantiated, and the PAN’s complaint to the electoral commission contained not even a hint of evidence to support the charges. Political analysts are at one in observing that the charges against López Obrador amount to little more than low-grade billingsgate mudslinging and fearmongering.

The allegations were further weakened by the fact that López Obrador has been careful to distance himself from Chávez, if for no other reason than to prevent this ersatz scenario from gaining any traction. The perredista commented as early as 2004 that “each country has its own realities,” and that to compare him to the Venezuelan leader was “simplistic,” a position which he has continually reaffirmed, noting in a January 30, 2006 interview that he does not know and has never even spoken with Chávez, and that the two were fundamentally distinct from each other. Even most outside analysts feel that the men only loosely share an ideology that is far more populist than Marxist. Calderón, increasingly taking to throwing “Hail Mary” desperation passes, would later accuse López Obrador of having authoritarian tendencies, an equally untenable invention and totally unevidenced charge.

Nevertheless, Calderón has dug in his heels and continued the assault, declaring at a meeting of PAN legislative candidates that the campaign was a “war” to avoid a return to past ways marked by corruption and “those who time and again buried the country in debt.” This oblique jab was an unmistakable reference to López Obrador, who some Mexican conservatives fear is a reincarnation of Luis Echeverría (1970-76) and José López Portillo (1976-1982), a genre of populist leaders whose ill-advised spending brought on massive financial crises. Such tactical deployments are unlikely to net Calderón much support, as they do not flow from a position of strength, but one of desperation, and will hardly prove reassuring to voters uncertain of his executive credentials and disgusted by the taint of apparent PAN venality stemming from allegations of corruption regarding President Fox’s wife, Marta Sahagún.

Bringing on Disintegration
Roberto Madrazo mimicked Calderón’s worsening manufactured anxieties, announcing on March 16 that, it was “a big risk for Mexico for [López Obrador] to win,” and that “my struggle is precisely to see that [López Obrador] does not win the election and that Mexico moves ahead.” Such a statement is nothing short of rank hypocrisy, given Madrazo’s well-founded reputation for astronomical corruption and anti-democratic deportment, a legacy reinforced by his unyielding support of Puebla governor Mario Marín who has been tied to the scandalous Lydia Cacho press freedom case.

The priista’s switch to his current scorched earth strategy most likely marks the end of his viability as a candidate. His party never has been able to coalesce around his candidacy, and the current electoral juncture has provoked nothing short of a massive disintegration of party unity and structure, further driven by Madrazo’s collapse in most opinion polls. After buzz-sawing his way to his party’s nomination – alienating important and very popular party figures such as Elba Esther Gordillo, the head of the teachers’ union, in the process – Madrazo may have mightily contributed to the destruction of the very party infrastructure he was counting on to help carry him to victory in July. Indeed, the elevated stakes created by advances in the country’s democratic process have led to intense internal struggles within the PRI, with the latest example being the contentious attempts to draw up the party’s list of congressional and senatorial candidates, which was seen as a struggle between Madrazo’s desired list, and those preferred by other key PRI figures.

It has long been rumored that party leaders are unhappy with Madrazo’s poor showing up to now and the seeming “reverse coattails” effect he is having on the party, and would prefer to see him replaced as a candidate. For many of them, a change couldn’t come soon enough, as increasing numbers of PRI politicians are now jumping ship. When party spokesman Eduardo Andrade resigned on February 28, citing Madrazo’s authoritarian manipulation of the PRI’s internal processes, he left behind 40 years of party activism. Further contributing to the campaign’s disintegration has been the March 8 decision by dissident Sonoran governor Eduardo Bours to align nearly all the municipalities in his state with Gordillo’s faction, Nueva Alianza. Nine days later, 18 PRI congressmen previously affiliated with the party’s teachers’ union wing (headed by Gordillo until her defection) renounced their party membership and announced their intention to form a new political bloc.

Not all the defectors will land in Gordillo’s lap, however. Some analysts have suggested that there is a distinct possibility that some of the priista vote will ultimately migrate to the PRD, strengthening López Obrador’s hand, and perhaps giving the necessary impulse to propel the PRD’s development into a national political movement.

Down the Stretch
For the foreseeable future, López Obrador will continue to be the focal point of the country’s political discourse. This scenario spells further trouble for his opponents, not only because their attack ads inadvertently offer the perredista additional publicity, but because this strategy impedes any inclination for Calderón and Madrazo to more effectively project themselves as dynamic candidates, and to lay out the sort of proposals around which López Obrador has built his campaign. The fallout for the other candidates is likely to be severe. Disintegration and disunity in the PRI should accelerate and perhaps become irreparable, possibly destroying Mexico’s only party with a truly national political reach. Moreover, as the Fox-Calderón slander campaign against López Obrador continues to founder, it will serve to discredit the PAN as a party of democratic ideals, and darken the stain on Fox’s already severely blemished legacy.