Mexicans Hit the Polls to Elect New President

Mexicans go to the polls Sunday to elect a new president. The vote will determine whether Mexico joins the region's leftward trend, or deepens free-market reforms and its already close alliance with the United States. Polls have shown the race will be close between leftist Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador and conservative Felipe Calderon.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

Mexicans are going to the polls today to elect a new president and a new congress. NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro joins us on the line from Mexico City.

Lourdes, start with the basics. Who are the candidates, primarily, and what do they stand for?

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO reporting:

Well, Felipe Calderon is on the right side of this candidacy. He is promoting free trade. Calderon was a former energy secretary who worked for a sitting President Vicente Fox. He's Harvard educated, and he wants to make Mexico more competitive and integrated into the global economy.

On the left is Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador. His slogan is that the poor must come first. He's a former mayor of Mexico City, whom people really either love or loathe. He wants to begin a big spending campaign to create jobs, and he wants to renegotiate the North America Free Trade Agreement.

In third place is the candidate of the party that ruled Mexico for 71 years. That's Roberto Madrazo. He's been trying to kind of occupy the middle ground in what has become a very polarized debate here.

You know, this race presents a very stark choice for Mexicans. Go left for the first time in their history and join Latin America's wave, or move in exactly the opposite direction with Calderon and embrace globalization.

HANESEN: Talk a little bit more about the issues that Mexican voters are interested in. You've mentioned the economy and free trade, elaborate a little bit.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, there's a couple of things happening in this election. You know, after decades of one-party rule, we're seeing real ideological divides open up in the electorate in Mexico. It's been a really vicious campaign, with all sorts of attacks between the candidates. Calderon has been trying to scare the electorate by saying his rival, Lopez Obrador, will ruin the economy. And Lopez Obrador has retaliated by calling Calderon a candidate of the rich.

So specifically it all revolves around the economy and jobs. And you know, voters are really interested in choosing two different ways of managing the economy and two different ways of looking into the future. One says, you know, we're going to go with globalization, we're going to try to become more competitive. And another says, actually that's not the way to go. You know, we need to help our poor, we need to be a little more insular, and we need to take a tougher stance with globalization.

HANSEN: This is one of the most expensive elections in Mexican history. What is it that's driving up the spending?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah, this election has cost over a billion dollars, but the IFEI(ph), that's the election body that oversees the vote, has had to really overcome years of rigged elections here and the resulting voter apathy.

Now, Mexico actually helps train election workers in places like Iraq now. So they've really turned things around, and as they say, that costs a lot of money. But it is a billion dollars that they're spending this election year.

HANSEN: What do you think can be expected from Vicente Fox, the incumbent President? His term doesn't end until December.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah, well, you know, Mexicans had a lot of hope when Vicente Fox broke 71 years of one-party rule here and assumed the presidency in 2000. And while he has had some key successes, you know, by and large, people have felt a little bit disappointed. He faced a divided congress, so many of the reforms he wanted to pass didn't get any traction.

And so it really depends on who the next president-elect will be. If it's someone from his party, like Felipe Calderon, well, then I think you'll see, perhaps, you know, more momentum in the last remaining months of his presidency. On the other hand, if, you know, they reject the path that he has taken Mexico on, which is a free market reform path, and they elect Lopez Obrador, then I think you'll see something very different.

But you know, Mexican presidents only serve one term, so there is this saying here that they become a lame duck the day they're elected. And a lot of people have said that about Vicente Fox.

HANSEN: NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, in Mexico City.

Lourdes, thank you so much.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You're welcome.

HANSEN: Profiles of the major candidates in Mexico's presidential race, as well as the key issues on voters' minds, are at our Web site, npr.org.

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