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On July 2, an estimated 70 million Mexicans will be eligible to vote to select a successor to President Vicente Fox. Under Mexican law, Fox cannot run for re-election. The 2006 presidential elections promise to be the most competitive and unusual in recent memory with no party able to achieve more than 40 percent of the vote. Up until the 1980s, the long ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) received 90 percent of the vote. Fox’s 2000 win made him the first opposition president in more than 70 years.

Leading the pack is longtime frontrunner and former Mexico City mayor Andres Manuel López Obrador (AMLO or “El Peje”) with 38 or 39 percent of potential voters according to a consensus of Mexican pollsters (See “La Lotería Más Grande,” July 16, 2004). López Obrador enjoyed as much as an 18 point lead early in the campaign but his advantage was whittled down to a mere six by last fall and the latest polls represent a modest rebound over his rivals, Felipe Calderón of Fox’s right-wing National Action Party (PAN) and the PRI’s Roberto Madrazo who are locked in a technical dead heat at 31 percent to 29 percent.

Although AMLO may show slippage in the months ahead, “it is always good to begin a race eight points out in front,” chuckles Ruy Campos, chief pollster for Mitofsky Associates, which is monitoring the candidates for the television giant, Televisa. Campos is optimistic about El Peje’s chances to hang on to his lead, noting that nearly half his backing comes from members of other parties or those who have no party. These numbers will grow as voters who oppose the PRI and went with Fox in 2000 come to see López Obrador as the only candidate who can prevent the PRI from re-taking power.

Should Andres Manuel López Obrador and the “Alliance for the Good of All”—which is led by his own left-wing Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) and includes both the tiny Party of Labor (PT) and the even more miniscule Democratic Convergence Party—win the run for the roses this summer, he would become Mexico’s first president from the left since Lázaro Cárdenas (1934-1940). Moreover, his election would be a brusque departure from the nation’s last four neo-liberal heads of state. AMLO would also be the latest to join the anti-neo-liberal bandwagon that is sweeping Latin America although he seems closer to Chile’s president-elect Michelle Bachelet then to Hugo Chávez and Evo Morales.

Andres Manual Lopez Obrador

Although López Obrador is a vocal critic of neo-liberalism, in recent months he has dedicated much time and energy to persuading Mexico’s business class that he is a trustworthy ally. In public utterances, he declares himself a supporter of the free market and commercial globalization—but with a strong state to defend national interests and identity.

The former Mexico City mayor kicked off his campaign in signature style with a not-so-mass meeting in the town of Metlatonac, Guerrero. Of 30,000 residents, 29,000 are deeply impoverished Mixtec, Amuzgo, and Tlapaneco Indians. Infant mortality is reported as being 300 times the national average.

Metlatonac was an exemplary stage for the left candidate to expound upon his campaign slogan: Primero Los Pobres! (“The Poor First!”) Indeed, these were the buzzwords with which El Peje governed Mexico City, earning him the contempt of his opponents as a “populist” whose giveaways will break the economy. Populist or not, López Obrador, who provided a pension and free medical attention for the capital’s senior citizens, is extremely popular with its underclass; Mexico City contains a fifth of the nation’s voters.

According to National University social economist Julio Boltvinik, 70 million out of 103 million Mexicans live in and around the poverty line—which is to say that poor Mexicans are the bulk of the electorate. Until 2000, when Fox upset the apple cart, the PRI had a lock on the votes of the poor.

In 2006, those votes will be decisive and up for grabs—and the candidates will compete for them until the final ballot is cast.

Inexplicably, AMLO’s adversaries chose to open their campaigns in the very megalopolis that he governed so successfully for six years and where the PRD has controlled City Hall for the better part of the decade.

The PAN’s Felipe Calderón, a member of Mexico’s social and political elite, went slumming for the votes of the great unwashed but drew only a handful of curious onlookers in the downtrodden delegation (borough) of Ixtapalapa, solid Peje territory. Later, as the right-winger (Calderón represents the rightist wing of the right-wing party) began his spiel in a suburban bullring, Televisa filmed hundreds of “PANistas” stampeding out of the arena, presumably because the free eats had been exhausted.

Short, balding, and shrill, Calderón has none of the charisma of the boom-voiced, six-foot-six inch-tall Fox, a former president of Coca Cola who marketed his way into high office. But Fox proved to be a lot like the product he used to sell—full of bubbles and sweet talk—and failed to deliver the “change” he so fervently hawked, a decided handicap for Calderón and the PAN in the upcoming presidential derby.

Another handicap: Calderón is the clear favorite of the U.S. embassy. At a panel discussion late last year that was organized by the American Chamber of Commerce, the PANista, a former energy secretary, drew wild applause when he pledged to privatize PEMEX, the national oil monopoly, while AMLO met with stony stares for his anti-privatization stance. In the light of the current anti-U.S. mania that has gripped Mexico ever since Bush & Company signed on to a border wall, even the sub rosa endorsement of the United States is a disadvantage.

The PRI’s Roberto Madrazo, who also launched his campaign in AMLO-landia, had similar problems drumming out a crowd. Party técnicos laid out 42,000 chairs for a hugely ballyhooed rally in Ecátepec, just outside the Mexico City line, but only 15,000 showed up. The empty seats came in handy as weapons when a furious brawl broke out between warring PRI factions right below the speaker’s podium. Although Madrazo preaches party “unity,” the one-time ruling party is seamed with schism and given Madrazo’s questionable electoral history (he has often been accused of fraud), keeping the PRI from self-destructing before Election Day is a key concern for party honchos.

To match the PRD’s “Alliance For the Good of All,” Madrazo has concocted the “Alliance for Mexico”—the PRI plus the Mexican Green Environmental Party (PVEM), an entity that sells itself to the highest bidder every six years (it supported Fox in 2000).

In addition, two newly-invented parties are in the race for the money (juicy subsidies from the non-partisan Federal Electoral Institute (IFE). The PANAL or New Alliance Party, is a PRI split-off that has the backing of the nation’s education workers, the largest labor union in Latin America. And a comic opera amalgam, the Alternative Social Democrat Farmers Party features two nominees battling over the party’s registration.

But there is also a fourth major candidate—or rather non-candidate—to be reckoned with: Subcomandante Marcos, the quixotic mouthpiece for the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN). Unconstrained by IFE regulations, Marcos took the Zapatistas’ anti-electoral “Other Campaign” on the road New Year’s Day, barnstorming through the nation’s southeast before branching out into the rest of Mexico. By election day, the Subcomandante expects to have spoken with workers, farmers, Indians, and those who share the Zapatistas’ vision, in every state in the Mexican union.

The EZLN’s strategy is to build an anti-capitalist, non-hierarchal left in Mexico that is not dependent on the political parties or a corrupted electoral system for social change.

When the presidential campaigns officially kicked off on January 18, Subcomandante Marcos was in the Yucatán hearing out hurricane victims and disgruntled Mayan artisans barred from selling their wares at the major Mayan ruin of Chichén Itzá. Like AMLO and Madrazo and all the others, the Other Campaign is focused on winning the hearts and minds of Mexico’s poor.

Drawing several thousand supporters and/or curiosity-seekers to his camp meetings, Marcos is running neck and neck with AMLO and his rivals when it comes to drawing a crowd. The failure of the candidates—and non-candidates—to turn out the masses could be an early indicator of voter disinterest. A low turnout would validate the EZLN’s argument that elections are not a good measure of democracy.

Indeed, as the campaigns move into gear and the hyperbole, hypocrisy and cronyism thicken, and obscene tons of money are spent on cheesy TV hit pieces (the IFE budget for the 2006 election exceeds all of the nation’s poverty programs combined), the Other Campaign’s message is certain to have much scratch down below in Mexico Profundo (“deep Mexico”) where most Mexicans dwell.

John Ross’s latest work-in-progress, Making Another World Possible– Zapatista Chronicles 2000-2006, will be published by Nationbooks this fall.