Mexico's presidential race kicks off with predictions of a PRI comeback

Country's first female candidate has to answer for Calderón's shortcomings

Josefina Vázquez Mota is Mexico's first woman candidate.
Josefina Vázquez Mota is Mexico's first woman candidate.EFE

Mexico's presidential race officially began on Friday with the country's top three contenders promising better personal security for citizens, who are exhausted by soaring drug violence and police and judicial corruption.

The historic Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which up until 2000 had governed Mexico for nearly 70 years, may be poised to make a comeback, according to the most recent polls.

Enrique Pérez Nieto, a popular former Mexico state governor, is leading by some 15 percentage points over his closest rival Josefina Vázquez Mota, of the ruling National Action Party (PAN), in the July 1 race. The PRI is also some 30 points ahead of the leftist Andrés Manuel López Obrador, of the Progressive Movement coalition, a grouping of three organizations that includes his Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD).

"We are at the start of this race and it is clear that our opponents will launch a campaign of accusations and disqualifications," Peña Nieto said Sunday during a campaign stop in Ciudad Juárez, a town on the US border that has been particularly hard hit by drug violence. "Let me just say here, in Ciudad Juárez, that for every accusation, for every disqualification they hurl in desperation, you will have on your side a public servant with a plan for and commitment to Mexican society."

But there are some who fear that the return of the PRI, with some older stalwarts backing the 45-year-old Peña Nieto as part of one internal party faction, could spell crackdowns on press freedoms and other liberties that were common during the 1970s and 1980s.

"Peña Nieto's team may introduce a Putin-like model that curtails some freedoms," says writer Jorge Zepeda, who adds that the other internal faction, headed by influential Senator Manlio Fabio Beltrones, supports political reforms that could bring more legitimacy to Mexico's political system, which is beleaguered by favoritism.

Although the race officially kicked off Friday, all of Mexico has been in campaign mode for the past six months. Peña Nieto has avoided, until now, facing off with his rivals, and the PRI, which governs in 20 of the 32 states, has been trying to present itself as a cohesive party. The real enemy, according to Peña Nieto's team, is President Felipe Calderón. The second PAN president to take office in December 2006, Calderón has been inaugurating hosts of public work projects over the past few months, which could be seen as a benefit to Vázquez Mota.

The PRI team fears - as Peña Nieto warned in Ciudad Juárez - that a dirty tricks campaign will be launched in the coming weeks from the Los Pinos presidential palace, with the release of secret dossiers on corruption investigations against many party members, including details of the high-profile case against past PRI president Humberto Moreira, who had to resign after a series of irregularities were discovered that took place while he was governor of Coahuila state.

Peña Nieto's advisors found themselves scrambling for explanations after it was publicized that the candidate was looking for a pact with the drug cartels in order to stem the violence that has now claimed close to 50,000 lives. Peña Nieto, who has repeatedly had to deny this, said the lie was spread by his rivals to discredit the PRI, but didn't say whether it came from Calderón's PAN party.

For her part, the center-right Vázquez Mota, Mexico's first female candidate, has had to answer for Calderón's shortcomings, including his failure to generate jobs, as he promised in his platform, and the bloody drug war that is taking its toll on Mexican society.

"Her team is weak, her message isn't clear and she doesn't have an agenda," says Rubén Aguilar, a professor and former spokesman for President Vicente Fox, the first PAN chief executive who governed from 2000 to 2006.

On a swing though Chiapas Sunday, Vázquez Mota, 51, who has pledged to help Mexican families by improving their living standards, criticized Peña Nieto's attempt to put his words down on a public contract signed by a notary at a ceremony the day before. "I don't need to sign any public contract before you because I believe in keeping my word, something my parents showed me and their grandparents before them," she said.

But one who has changed his radical discourse from the last race is López Obrador, who lost the 2006 election by 0.56 percent to Calderón. In Querétaro state on Sunday, López Obrador, 59, said Sunday that Mexicans' living standards will improve if the country's budget was managed better.

"If that budget was administered honorably and distributed with justice, living standards and jobs will greatly improve. That is our pledge because I am going to become the defender and guardian of all of Mexico's money," he said.

Ex-President De la Madrid dies aged 77

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Miguel de la Madrid, whose presidency was marked by high inflation and the failures of his government's handling of the devastating 1985 earthquake in Mexico City, died Sunday after being hospitalized with a respiratory ailment. He was 77.

De la Madrid became the symbol of what Mexico's political observers call the "decade of lost opportunities," in which the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) promised vast reforms for press freedom and crackdowns on corruption, but did little to carry them out. In the end, De la Madrid's pledges were set aside and his administration was marred by electoral fraud in state races at the end of his term.

De la Madrid, the second-to-last PRI president to govern Mexico (1982-1988), was severely criticized by his own countrymen for his slow response after the September 19, 1985 earthquake, which killed more than 10,000 people. Initially De la Madrid refused help from abroad to deal with the aftermath of the 8.1-magnitude quake - a decision that prompted citizens to organize themselves to form rescue teams and support groups independent of the PRI government, which they had decided was useless.

De la Madrid's promise to clean up government corruption led to little more than a few symbolic arrests, such as that of Arturo Durazo Moreno, Mexico City's notorious police chief with a dubious human rights record and connections to racketeers and other illegal gangs.

His attempt to jail Jorge Díaz Serrano, a former director of state oil firm Pemex, in a public bid to clean up the petroleum giant, caused embarrassment when the former official was discovered to have been locked away at a prison with tennis courts and other country club-like facilities.

Born in Colima, De la Madrid made his way up through government after graduating from the National Autonomous University (UNAM) and Harvard in the United States. He served in the administration of José López Portillo (1976-82) as part of the government's economic team. It was López Portillo who selected De la Madrid as his successor.

After he left government, De la Madrid stayed in the public eye. In a May 2009 interview, he expressed his regret in appointing his own successor Carlos Salinas de Gotari (1988-2000) and hinted that his brother, Raúl Salinas de Gotari, a shady businessman who spent 10 years in jail for murder, became a rich man under his successor's term because of favoritism and corruption.

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