Dirty Politics Mar Mexico's Presidential Race

As July elections approach, Mexico's presidential race is wide open. The two chief candidates are waging nasty campaigns. Observers say the contenders have imported American-style, mud-slinging politics.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

Mexico's very tight presidential election is less than three weeks away. Polls show Felipe Calderon on the right and Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador on the left about tied. And with all you hear about Mexicans crossing the border to get here, here is something we are exporting there: mudslinging media politics. Political writers say the tone of the campaign has suffered a lot from Americanization. But, reports NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, it appears to be working.

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LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO reporting: At the headquarters of the Federal Electoral Institute in Mexico City, the clapping was polite as the civility accord signed this week. Mexico's political parties agreed to respect the results of the July 2 presidential election and stop the negative campaigning ahead of the vote. Of course, once the heads of the two main parties from the left and the right took to the stage at the event, they couldn't help sniping at one another.

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GARCIA-NAVARRO: The head of Felipe Calderon's party from the right says that the country should avoid falling into demagogic populism.

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GARCIA-NAVARRO: The head of Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador's left-leaning party then countered that the populism of the right is the problem. Welcome to Mexico's 2006 election, where the fight is down and dirty to become Mexico's next leader.

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GARCIA-NAVARRO: The Calderon campaign has bombarded the public with ads like these:

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GARCIA-NAVARRO: The central slogan is Lopez Obrador, a danger to Mexico. The Federal Electoral Institute twice had to step into ban the ads, but the aggressive tactics gave Calderon an initial bump in the polls.

Mr. LOPEZ OBRADOR (Candidate for Mexican President) (Speaking Foreign Language)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: At the tail end of last week's debate, Lopez Obrador for his part, or Amlo[ph] as he's known here, went after his rival's carefully cultivated honest image, accusing Calderon of giving his brother-in-law favorable contracts while he was in office. That brother-in-law is now suing Lopez Obrador for defamation. The most recent poll now shows Amlo with a slight lead. Everyday brings new attacks and counterattacks, some more serious than others. The tenor of the campaign has called watchdog groups here to proclaim their worry, but the party planners don't see any reason to stop a winning strategy.

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GARCIA-NAVARRO: At the headquarters of the Calderon campaign, activists are in a whirl of activity. Every morning in the so-called war room, the campaign advisors meet to decide their plan of attack for the day. Juan Camino Malnino[ph] is the deputy campaign coordinator. He says that Calderon has come up from behind because he's been able to get his message out while letting voters know what he says are the failings of his rival. The election looks like it may be very, very close. And says, Malnino, their campaign is going to fight to the end, setting up the specter of a Florida-style recount battle.

Mr. JUAN CAMINO MALNINO (Deputy Campaign Coordinator): Well, in any case, you know, democracy you win or lose by one vote, and even if we win by one vote, we'll defend that victory and Felipe will be president.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Mexico was run for 71 years by one party and the next president was handpicked by the sitting one. While some people here worry about all of the negative campaigning that's going on, others see it as a sign of a burgeoning freedom here. Eduardo Garcia[ph] runs an analysis Web site called Santino Camon[ph].

Mr. EDUARDO GARCIA (Santino Camon): I think it shows that Mexico's becoming a real democratic country. It might not be the ideal way of political parties of showing competition amongst themselves, but it's part of it, and it's not a threat to its democracy. On the contrary, it's a strong sign of democratic evolution.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Garcia says politics in Mexico is now really exciting. Perhaps, if you like your sports bloody. Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News, Mexico City.

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