Splattered as it is with libelous calumnies, dark threats, smarmy insinuation, and stridently accusatory television spots, the run-up to the July 2 elections here constitutes the most toxic presidential race of the five this reporter has covered during decades on the ground in Mexico.
Indeed, both the campaigns of once-upon-a-time ruling PRI party candidate Roberto Madrazo and the right-wing PAN’s Felipe Calderon boil down to one theme: everything and anything against frontrunner Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (AMLO), the former mayor of Mexico City and the standard bearer for the pseudo-leftist Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) who has led the pack by as much as 18 points ever since 2003 mid-term elections. AMLO’s lead has held steady around eight for months.
The bi-partisan anti-AMLO assault is an extension of PRI-PAN complicity to eliminate Lopez Obrador from the competition by hook or by crook. The onslaught began in early 2004 with the release of incriminating videotapes showing members of the PRD receiving cash payouts from a construction tycoon whom AMLO had denied city contracts. Lopez Obrador would later tie the release of the videos (which were aired ad nauseam on Mexico’s two-headed television monopoly Televisa and TV Azteca) to ex-president Carlos Salinas, a personal nemesis in AMLO’s mindset akin to Sherlock Holmes’ great foe, Prof. Moriarty.
Having failed to blacken Lopez Obrador’s name via the videos, President Vicente Fox’s PAN party sought to take advantage of widespread crime and violence in Mexico City by organizing a march in June 2004 to repudiate the then-mayor. But the huge mobilization was swelled by AMLO supporters who turned their rage on President Fox.
In early 2005, the PAN and the PRI again ganged up on Lopez Obrador for having defied a court order by trying to build an access road to a hospital that may or may not have skirted private property, and sought to remove the immunity from prosecution that his office guaranteed him Had the plot succeeded, Lopez Obrador would have been jailed and barred from the ballot. Nonetheless, after 1.3 million AMLO loyalists marched through Mexico City last April to protest the persecution, Fox got cold feet and shelved the charges.
Now his rivals are clobbering Lopez Obrador with the fearsome specter of none other than Venezuela’s outspoken president Hugo Chavez. The connection between AMLO and Chavez has long been floated by Washington. Charges that Chavez was financing AMLO’s campaign re-emerged after the Mexico City daily Cronica, a paper said to be financed by the Salinas family, "infiltrated" "Bolivarian Cells" (they are ‘circles’ not ‘cells’), an organization of Mexican citizens who stand in solidarity with Chavez’s Venezuela, and "discovered" that some Chavez supporters also supported Lopez Obrador! Although Cronica offered no other proof of links between the left candidate and the Venezuelan leader, German Martinez, the PAN representative before the Federal Electoral Institute called upon IFE president Luis Carlos Ugalde to probe Chavista "subversion" in AMLO’s campaign. Ugalde subsequently turned the matter over to the Interior Ministry for investigation.
Meanwhile, the PAN deluged Televisa and TV Azteca screens with primetime spots that cut back and forth between Lopez Obrador and an arm-flailing Hugo Chavez just to underscore the unsubstantiated connection between the two. The spots seemed to irritate the Venezuelan president more than they did Lopez Obrador. On his weekly TV show "Alo Senor Presidente", Chavez lashed out at the PAN, accusing the right-wingers of using his image to smear the Mexican Left in order to prevent Lopez Obrador’s election in July. The PAN campaign, said Chavez, was just one more example of the Washington-orchestrated conspiracy against his person,
The Venezuelan president’s outburst further fueled the anti-AMLO inquisition. Now the PAN insisted that Fox lodge a diplomatic protest against Venezuela for having "interfered" in the Mexican election, a crime delineated in Article 33 of the constitution. The IFE’s Ugalde, who frequently seems to side with the PAN, splashed petrol on the bonfire by labeling Chavez’s intervention "imprudent and undesirable" and petitioned the foreign ministry to demand redress.
In late February, Ugalde refused to intervene when the PAN flew former right-wing Spanish prime minister Jose Maria Aznar to the Mexican capital to endorse Calderon, diss Lopez Obrador by name, and warn that his election would bring down Mexico, a much more obvious violation of Article 33 than Chavez might or might not have perpetrated.
Not since the Salinas years when the IFE was created to legitimize questionable federal elections has the nation’s maximum electoral authority appeared so patently partisan.
Both Fox, the PAN and the PRI (the "PRIAN" dixit AMLO) concur with the Bush White House assessment that Lopez Obrador, like Hugo Chavez, is a dangerous demogogue spreading dread "populism" in his efforts to attend to the basic needs of the poor. This past March, the Bush regime issued a reaffirmation of its strategy of "preventive" war that pointed to pockets of "extreme populism" as likely targets for U.S. "preventive" attack in Latin America.
The Fox-White House obsession with the Chavez-Lopez Obrador connection was on exhibit at the April 1st tri-national summit in Cancun. Asked if he and George Bush had discussed the Mexican election, Fox told Televisa news that yes, the two had talked about "Venezuela." The U.S. State Department accuses Chavez of meddling in elections in Bolivia, Peru, and Ecuador.
Despite this latest "zipizapi" (ruckus) between Vicente Fox and Hugo Chavez, relations between Venezuela and Mexico could not get much worse at this point. Both countries withdrew ambassadors after Chavez dubbed Fox "a puppy of Yanqui imperialism" following last November’s Summit of the Americas in Argentina.
Although he is barred from re-election, Fox’s incessant stump speeches packed with veiled references to AMLO amount to bald-faced intervention in the presidential race by a sitting president, the PRD insists – a charge Mexico’s Supreme Court ratified, warning Fox that he could be forced to resign should he continue to push the envelope.
According to the Fox gospel, Lopez Obrador is an unstable would-be ‘caudillo’ (strongman) who will destroy the economic achievements of the Fox administration and bankrupt the country with his populist schemes. "Callese Chachalaca!" AMLO mocks back, "Shut up, you garrulous bird!" Such is the abysmal level of campaign debate in Mexico with less than a hundred days until the election.
Media hype has been even more malignantly excessive in 2006 than it was six years ago when Fox rode negative spots designed by ex-Clinton strategist Dick Morris to victory. Televisa, which dominates 85% of the Mexican market, and its junior partner TV Azteca, are crucial to the anti-AMLO crusade’s success. No matter who actually wins the election, the big winners will be Televisa and Azteca â*" both networks stand to garner the lion’s share of the 13,000.000.000 pesos being shelled out by the IFE to subsidize the parties, much of it being spent on airing venomous spots against Lopez Obrador (one shows AMLO’s Mexico City crumbling to the ground with the word DANGER stamped across the screen.)
In an effort to consolidate PAN support for a "reform" of laws governing radio and television that would grant Televisa and Azteca 40 year concessions and eliminate the competition from a rapidly digilitizing spectrum, PAN president Manuel Espino summoned the party’s senators together last month (March) to explain how the so-called "ley Televisa" would enhance the fortunes of their candidate. Televisa had promised to pump up the increasingly shrill Calderon until he caught Lopez Obrador and then double its efforts to put him ahead, the PAN president had told the solons, according to what one anonymous senator later leaked to the national (left-wing) daily La Jornada.
Televisa’s handling of the presidential race has been tilted to the right ever since the candidates kicked off their campaigns in January and the network covered live Calderon’s investiture as the PAN nominee, a favor not extended to either Madrazo or Lopez Obrador. Televisa coverage of daily activities of the three "presidenciales" sometimes shows AMLO in herky-jerky frames just to underscore his purportedly erratic and unstable persona.
Both Calderon and the PRI’s Madrazo (who trails badly in the polls) will get another chance to beat up on Lopez Obrador in upcoming debates set for April and June â*" AMLO will only show up for the second.
Meanwhile, on the left flank of the Lopez Obrador bandwagon, the rebel Zapatista Army of National Liberation’s "Other Campaign", a fiercely anti-electoral initiative featuring "Delegate Zero" (Subcomandante Marcos) that has been barnstorming from state to state talking bad about all the candidates with particular emphasis on Lopez Obrador, suffered a bitter slap when Rosario Ibarra, the Gran Dame of Mexico’s human rights movement and Marcos’s surrogate mother, accepted a sure-shot senate seat on the AMLO ticket.
Nevertheless, whether due to the Other Campaign’s efforts or voter disgust at the antics of the candidates, a quarter of the electorate tell pollsters that they will not go to the polls July 2nd.
Question: How is Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador like Ronald Reagan? Answer: both are (were) coated with Teflon. No matter what crimes they are (were) accused of ("like eating babies for breakfast" cracks former AMLO City Hall sidekick Jose Agustin Ortiz Pincheti), the salvos strengthened their statures. Indeed, every ill-intentioned ploy to unseat him or bar him from the ballot or cast him as an unstable subversive has only helped Lopez Obrador to firm up his advantage. March monthly ratings by Mitofsky pollsters contracted by Televisa, not a fountain of support for AMLO, have the frontrunner solid at 38, Calderon (probably due to the anti-Chavez barrage) up a point and a half at 31.5 and Madrazo shrinking to 28. The sampling may have as much validity as the predictions of the famous Witches of Catamaco Veracruz who recently cleansed AMLO by passing an egg over his person and subsequently divined him the big winner July 2nd.
But despite the witches’ "limpia", being the frontrunner could be extremely dangerous for Lopez Obrador’s health. Exasperated as Calderon and Madrazo must be at the failure of character assassination to deflate AMLO’s lead, the corporeal kind could come next.
JOHN ROSS has covered four previous Mexican presidential election. He is the author of Murdered By Capitalism.