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Mexican Standoff

Are dirty presidential campaign tactics destroying the prospect of a unified Latin America?

Mexican politics have always been a spectacle, but the theatrical use of media in this year's presidential race is transforming the country's political arena into a circus ring. Campaigns are quickly becoming less about debate and more about marketing, as candidates capitalize on the widespread accessibility of television by incorporating slanderous ads into their electioneering. Using a US-style smear campaign to discredit the progressive party, Mexico's right-wing competitors have instilled fear in the Mexican population and surged ahead in the polls. Right and left are now neck-in-neck in what is indisputably one of the most momentous presidential races in Mexican history, with the prospect of a unified, leftist Latin America hanging in the balance.

While Mexico's five political parties give international spectators the illusion of plurality, there are really only three runners in the presidential race: Roberto Madrazo is the candidate for the Partido Revolucionario Institutional (PRI), the party that governed Mexico for seventy-one years but was left with little credibility after much demonstrated corruption. Felipe Calderon is fronting the governing Partido Accion Nacional (PAN), which won the 2000 election with Vicente Fox, and Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, selling himself as the centre-left alternative, is running for the Partido de la Revolucion Democratica (PRD).

Obrador was mayor of Mexico City from 2000 to 2005. Claiming to govern "for the people," he built a controversial expressway to relieve Mexico City's heavy traffic and initiated a small monthly pension for the elderly. Obrador graduated from popular mayor to social phenomenon in April 2005 when he was threatened with a prison sentence for building a road-one which traversed private property-to a private hospital outside Mexico City's perimeter. When Obrador called for a massive demonstration (the "March of Silence") almost one million people showed up at Mexico City's main square to support him.

With the election less than a month away, things are heating up in Mexico. Obrador was far ahead of the competition when he began his official campaign earlier this year, dominating a variety of newspaper and TV polls. But in April, the PRI and the PAN joined forces in an attempt to ruin Obrador's chances of success, forming what the Mexican media has dubbed the "Pri-An alliance." The narrowed presidential race between Obrador and the PAN's Calderon-the left and the right-has become a war; one that is being waged on television sets and computer screens in the homes of millions of Mexicans.

The war got dirty when Elena Poniatowska, one of Mexico's most respected writers, publicly declared her support for Obrador in a series of television commercials. The PAN responded by sponsoring a TV spot that features a clip of Poniatowska championing Obrador while a deep voiceover growls, "Obrador is a danger to Mexico." Adding insult to injury, PAN President Manuel Espino publicly denigrated Poniatowska by telling leftist newspaper La Jornada that he felt "ashamed for that woman."

Members of the Mexican intellectual elite retaliated. Carlos Monsivais, Carlos Montemayor and Fernando del Paso jumped to Poniatowska's aid, condemning the PAN advertisement as "atrocious" and "lacking respect, due to ignorance." Internationally renowned writers like Eduardo Galeano, Doris Summer and Nobel Prize-winner Jose Saramago signed an open letter condemning the offences perpetrated against Poniatowska and reiterated Poniatowska's "right to express her opinion against the ultra-right in Mexico."

But the PAN did not stop there. In another ad, El Ángel-the Mexico City statue commemorating the country's independence-crumbles while the same snarling voice states that a PRD government has quadrupled Mexico City's debt. The only way to lift Mexico out of poverty, the announcer continues mysteriously, will be revealed in the official debates.

The first of these debates took place on April 25. Obrador announced beforehand that he would not attend, following a "strategy of silence" and instead holding a press conference. Madrazo and Calderon ridiculed Obrador for his absence, scoffing about his "lack of courage" to the press and leaving an empty chair onstage during the debate to publicly demonstrate that the PRD candidate was "not man enough" to participate.

PAN has also used TV spots to insinuate that Obrador is allied with Venezuela's leftist president Hugo Chávez. One commercial shows Chávez sneering, "Don't mess with me sir-you'll get stung," to current Mexican president Vincente Fox, and then cuts to a clip of Obrador saying, "Shut up, citizen president," to Fox. In the next segment, Obrador's voice takes on a menacing tone as he says slowly, "Shut up, cha-cha-la-caaa," referring to the chachalaca, a bird known for its irritating call. "Say no to intolerance," concludes a strong, authoritative voice.

The TV spots defaming Obrador's character have generated fear in the Mexican public, and the mudslinging has spread from television to the Internet. Massive email memes compare the two candidates' university educations: Calderon has a Harvard degree, while it is unclear if Obrador graduated from the Public National University of Mexico. Other emails and blogs claim that if the PRD wins the election there will be a civil war in Mexico and that Obrador will erect statues of Karl Marx on the streets. Countless personal sites masquerade as credible news sources, while blogs that claim to be impartial offer clips of the PAN ads.

Though the PAN's smear campaign may seem unjustly below-the-belt, playing dirty has paid off. Throughout April and May, the PRD's Obrador fell steadily behind in the presidential race. Many Mexican polls are privately financed, but supposedly "official" polls conducted in early May by Mexico City newspapers Reforma and Milenio reported that the PAN's Calderon was in the lead by roughly five points, with Obrador's popularity progressively declining.

This seeming setback did not trouble Obrador, however. The PRD candidate has been singing victory for the past six months and has stated in interviews that he doesn't believe in the results of most Mexican polls, which often require participants to vote by phone or online. Obrador rests assured that the people who will vote for him "are not the ones who own a telephone."

On June 6, the five candidates participated in the second official debate, but little political discussion actually took place. Each contender was given roughly one minute to sound off on pre-selected themes-no questions asked, no public opinion involved. These miniature speeches, however, were long enough for the candidates' familiar rhetoric to shine through. Sticking with the language he has used throughout his campaign, Calderon referred to Obrador as "a danger to Mexico," characterized his commitments to the nation as "unstable and unsafe" and called his economic reforms a "crisis." Obrador, on the other hand, continued to use the colloquial vernacular that has gained him the support of the "masses"; addressing foreign policy, he spoke out against the wall that the United States is building on its border with Mexico, stating that "Mexico will not be anybody's fool."

With Mexico's right- and left-wing candidates seemingly tied in a dead heat for the presidency, the outcome of next month's election remains to be seen. In Mexico's last presidential race, Vicente Fox called for the "useful vote." It wasn't voting for the right-it was strategic voting; voting "for change." The only way to end seventy-one years of dishonest PRI political power, he insisted, was to vote for someone who could possibly win, no matter who. This time around, says PAN party rhetoric, the presidential vote is a vote of fear. It isn't voting for the right-it is voting against a "tyrannical dictator," voting against "disrespectful socialism."

A wave of leftist governments has swept Latin America in recent years. Venezuela voted for Chávez's government in 1998, re-electing him in 2000 and supporting him through a failed US-backed coup in 2002. Brazil elected pro-worker president Lula da Silva in 2002. In 2005, Chile voted in the Socialist Party's Michel Bachelet, the first female president in a Latin American country, while Uruguay elected Tabare Vazquez, its first leftist president. In January of this year, Evo Morales, leader of the "Movement toward Socialism" became the first indigenous Bolivian president.

The upcoming Mexican election is of historic significance to both the country and to the world-a leftist government in Mexico could make revolutionary leader Simon Bolivar's dream of a unified Latin America a reality.

But Mexican history has never been written independently of the United States' foreign policy. Even Mexican dictator Porfirio Diaz knew this in 1876, when he famously exclaimed, "Poor Mexico! So far away from God, and so close to the United States!" The country has long been known as the "backyard" of the US and the "door" to Latin America, and the possibility of a dictator or a civil war in Mexico is even more fearsome to the American government than to the Mexican people themselves. Combined, Mexico and Venezuela provide more than one-third of the United States' oil imports, and Mexico's inclusion in a leftist Latin America that bands together to protect its natural resources would ravage the US economy. Mexico's neighbours to the north also fear the effect this election will have on the lucrative North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Calderon is planning an "augmentation" of NAFTA, while Obrador is proposing a "renegotiation" that would make the economic treaty more beneficial to Mexico.

One can't help but wonder whether the US has had a hand in this newfound wave of conservative smear campaigning. The scare tactics being used in Calderon's electioneering are characteristic of an American presidential race, begging comparisons to the notorious "Swift Boat Veterans for Truth" ads used to vilify John Kerry in the 2004 US election. Moreover, Bill Clinton's former campaign consultant, Dick Morris, helped secure Vicente Fox's 2000 election victory, and the defamatory PAN ads were produced by a subsidiary of the New-York-based advertising company Ogilvy & Mather.

The right-wing Mexican parties are discrediting the left by instilling fear in the country's population, a strategy that has proved successful in both the United States and in Canada. The significant July 2 election could potentially produce a more independent Mexico, a sovereign state, a unified Latin America-or not. The choice is in the hands of Mexicans; Mexicans who must wade through mudslinging slurs and fear-mongering rhetoric and ultimately make the decision that is best for the future of their country.