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Final thoughts on the Mexican election

By David Gaddis Smith

Mexicans are at the polls today to determine who will be their next president and who will represent them in Congress. Six governors and the mayor of Mexico City also will be elected to six-year terms.

What would be best for Mexico? What would be best for the United States?

enrique pena nieto la gran esperanza bookThe answer for the United States might be easier. Policymakers likely would like to see the pro-business National Action Party continue in power, fearful of what the return of the Institutional Revolutionary Party might bring in terms of corruption and other matters, while still preferring the PRI to the populism of Andrés Manuel López Obrador. But the PAN's Josefina Vázquez Mota is not going to win. Peña Nieto has numerous proposals that U.S. officials would see in the United States' best interest: He has plans to allow more private investment in Mexico's oil sector, and his state was one of the pioneers in introducing oral trials in Mexico. These and other proposals seen as benefiting U.S.-Mexican relations can be found in his book, "México, la gran esperanza."

López Obrador, if he loses, still might have the consolation of knowing that he has altered amlothe course of the campaign. Both Vázquez Mota and Peña Nieto have adopted many of his populist ideas promoting more social equality, such as providing a pension, or small grant, to all senior citizens. On the stump in Tijuana, Vázquez Mota and Peña Nieto barely touched on the large structural issues at stake in the election: energy, labor and fiscal reforms, nor what the next step should be to combat the nation's violence. They, like López Obrador, instead focused on what their governments would give citizens.

It is hoped that education will be a big winner in the election. All the candidates have proposed more scholarships, or small grants, to students, free high school to all who want it (Congress has passed a law calling for mandatory and free high school education to be phased in by 2022, and the Baja California legislature is phasing out high school fees by 2014). Although some experts believe the changes that are occurring in education are ones of quantity and not the necessary quality that can give Mexico a sustained push forward, others see that they can be important over time. Mexico has greatly expanded its educational offerings over the last 12 years and all the candidates have proposed expanding them more.

How to pay for all these promises? That will be the key. Mexican officials will be hoping that oil prices can remain high and that they will be able to pass energy, labor and fiscal reforms that allow the country to wean itself from using its oil revenues as its main tax base. Declining oil production means it likely has to do this to continue to provide the level of services that it does. Story on energy reforms. López Obrador, for all his talk of improving education, does not seem to have learned basic math; he pulls numbers in the billions of dollars out of the hat that he says he will create through ending corruption and lowering top government salaries. The math does not add up, raising fears that the government would spend money that it does not have, which can create an inflation that generally hurts the poor more than anybody else. López Obrador argues that he represents the real change, from the ills he said the PRI and the PAN are responsible for.

Peña Nieto had the advantage of a large lead, but also the advantage of being quickly able to change course when need be. He jettisoned his plans on whom to name as his successor candidate for governor of Mexico state last year to support Eruviel Avila, who won handily. When PRI 'President Humberto 'Moreira's debt scandal threatened to drop Peña Nieto in the polls, out went the former Coahuila governor and in came political fixer Pedro Joaquín Coldwell to lead the party. When the deal Moreira had made with teachers union leader Elba Esther Gordillo threatened Peña Nieto's relations with fellow PRIistas and voters, the PRI's coalition agreement with her New Alliance Party was discarded.

josefina vazquez motaWhat happened to Vázquez Mota? It could be that because the PAN primary was not held until three weeks until the general campaign began, she did not have time to adequately prepare. A rally to celebrate her nomination at the Estadio Azul turned to disaster because she appeared so late at the rally and someone had scheduled the buses to leave during the time her speech wound up taking place, leaving her to speak before a half-empty stadium. Former Baja California Gov. Ernesto Ruffo, now a Senate candidate, said such rookie mistakes would not happen during his organization of her campaign kickoff in Ensenada, but then the PAN did not reserve the main plaza in Ensenada for the event until too late; the PRI had already reserved it for its rally. Despite having many good proposals, her campaign never seemed to get off the ground. And as political analyst Ricardo Raphael pointed out during a talk at the Center for U.S.-Mexican Studies, her campaign slogan of "Diferente," or Different, was hard for voters to understand. She represented PAN continuity, but sought to be different from President Felipe Calderón. And then, last week, she proposed Calderón for attorney general in her final campaign appearance.

Vázquez Mota in Tijuana.
Peña Nieto in Tijuana.
López Obrador in Tijuana.
López Obrador in Mexicali.