Mexico Preps for July 2 Elections

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As Mexico prepares to hold a July 2 presidential election, the stakes are high for the next leader. Immigration is likely to continue to be a big issue for Mexican voters.

ROBERT SIEGEL host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News, I'm Robert Siegel.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

Mexico's elections are less than three weeks away and it's shaping up to be a very tight race for president. Two men are running neck and neck and for a preview we turn to Lourdes Garcia Navarro in Mexico City.

Lourdes, first of all, tell us a little bit about these two candidates.

LOURDES GARCIA NAVARRO reporting:

Well, Mexicans are really pretty divided between the two leaders of the race, their leftist and rightist politics. Polls show Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador from the left lagging slightly behind his rival. Now Lopez Obrador is a former mayor of Mexico City.

His message throughout the campaign is that the poor should come first. He's promoting a broad range of government spending programs along with social projects as his vision for Mexico. He's a very charismatic man, a former Indian rights activist who drives a simple car, a Nissan, and he lives in a very simple apartment in the capital, something that has won him admirers.

Now, his rival is Felipe Calderon from the sitting president's party. He's Harvard educated conservative former lawyer. Unsurprisingly, he really is the favorite of the business community. He wants to continue the free market policies President Fox has embraced, stressing Mexico's need to be competitive in the global economy.

He's hardly what you'd call physically imposing. He's kind of short and balding, but he really is powerful speaker and that's won him also a lot of admirers.

NORRIS: Now could we take a step back - give us the back drop in this election.

GARCIA NARVARRO: This is a very important election. You know, Mexico was run for 71 years by one party, the PRI. That monopoly was broken in 2000 with the election of the current president, Vicente Fox. Under Mexican law he cannot run for reelection, so really what we're seeing for the first time is a race that's wide open and it's really being a bitterly fought.

You know the PRI candidate, Roberto Madrazo, and the center politics that his party is now representing, they really don't have a real chance of winning and that's something new for Mexico. You know, the old party is no longer a force in Mexican politics.

NORRIS: And as you mentioned the candidates are offering two very different visions for Mexico. What are the main issues right now in the election and what are the main issues that the voters are interested in?

GARCIA NARVARRO: You know, I would say there are two main issues and those are clearly the economy and crime. Insecurity is a big issue in Mexico. The problems here come not only from the organized criminal elements, who've made this one of the kidnapping centers in the world, but also because of the drug war. There are vicious gang fights happening all over the country. They're fighting for control of the trade routes to the United States. These gangs act with impunity, killing cops, threatening government officials. It's something that the electorate is really, really worried about.

Now, Lopez Obrador, from the left, has promised to fight crime with social programs. Calderon is taking a completely different view and he's promised to fight it with a so-called (unintelligible), or iron fist approach, saying that he's going to promote life in prison sentences for kidnappers.

And of course, jobs, jobs, jobs is the other big issue of the campaign.

NORRIS: Immigration right now is a big issue in the United States. U.S. lawmakers are engaged in a fierce debate on this issue. How is it playing out there?

GARCIA NARVARRO: Well it's a bigger issue now than it probably would have been if it wasn't for what's happening in the U.S. Really, the candidates have been kind of wrong footed on this issue. It wasn't something that they had been talking about before everything that happened in the U.S. and now they really aren't offering anything new.

It's an uncomfortable subject and the way they've really been tackling it, on both sides, both Lopez Obrador and Calderon, is by, is through their economic proposals, saying that, you know, we're going to give you more jobs and that's going to stop immigration to the United States.

NORRIS: With so many eligible voters living in the U.S., how much of a force or a factor are Mexican citizens here in the U.S.?

GARCIA NARVARRO: Well they're important in the sense that so many, as you mentioned, Mexicans live in the U.S. and there is a huge immigration issue. So, you know, 400,000 Mexicans are voting with their feet and they're going to the United States every year. So in that sense the candidates really had to address immigration, but they've been talking about it in terms of providing employment to keep people here.

They really haven't been discussing the immigration debate in all its complexity as we've seen in the United States. You know the candidates because of Mexican law have not been able to campaign in the United States and some people say that's the reason why we haven't seen a lot of Mexican citizens who reside in the United States registering to vote.

NORRIS: Lourdes, thanks so much.

GARCIA NARVARRO: You're welcome.

NORRIS: That's NPR's Lourdes Garcia Navarro, speaking to us from Mexico City.

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