Published in The New York Times
Andrés Manuel López Obrador
Candidate for the Party of the Democratic Revolution
After Andrés Manuel López Obrador refused to accept his razor-thin loss in the 2006 presidential election, he shut down Mexico City’s main boulevard for six weeks to force a recount. When that failed, he declared himself Mexico’s legitimate president anyway before a mass of supporters in the capital’s central plaza.
Even supporters shuddered at the theatrics and his defiance of electoral institutions. Critics pointed to the spectacle as evidence of what they called radical populism.
Mr. López Obrador retreated to the political wilderness, trudging through each of the country’s 2,440 municipalities to build a new movement. He seemed all but finished.
But then, his left-leaning Party of the Democratic Revolution, or PRD, selected him as its presidential candidate. And in a surprising comeback, he has moved from third to second place in the polls. His rise seems to have injected new vigor into his political future.
Mr. López Obrador, 58, is a former mayor of Mexico City and PRD leader. But most trace his social commitment to the five years he spent living and working among the Chontal Indians in his home state of Tabasco.
At the beginning of his second presidential campaign, Mr. López Obrador set out to win back the moderate voters who had supported him in 2006. He proclaimed that he was seeking to build a “Republic of Love” and met with groups he had scorned six years ago, like business executives.
His candidacy got a push from student protests that adopted one of his frequent targets as their own: the main television network Televisa, where the politics-lite coverage has favored Enrique Peña Nieto, the front-runner in the polls.
Meanwhile, his policy proposals – a crackdown on corruption and waste, ambitious public works, programs for the poor – were drowned out by his claims that the opinion polls were all fixed, that a “mafia” was behind Mr. Peña Nieto, that his opponents were planning election fraud.
“He has convinced many that doubted,” said the historian Enrique Krauze, a critic. “But there is a certain harshness and violence in his public discourse that he couldn’t balance” with the “Republic of Love.”
His rhetoric leaves listeners wondering if he sees himself in some kind of mystical leadership role. “I won’t fail you, I won’t betray the people of Mexico,” he told his closing campaign rally. “As you love me, I love you.”
Enrique Peña Nieto
Candidate of the Institutional Revolutionary Party
Derided as a pretty-boy, made-for-TV candidate, Enrique Peña Nieto was believed to be too intellectually limited for an unscripted political campaign. When he was asked at a book fair to name three books that had influenced him, he seemed to prove the critics right.
For three long minutes, he rambled, named the Bible, confused a couple of novels and then gave up.
His detractors have underestimated him, however. He may be culturally unsophisticated, but he has proven to be a shrewd political operator who has run a disciplined team.
Although Mr. Peña Nieto’s early 30-point lead in the polls has slipped, he appears to be heading for victory on Sunday, marking a return to power of the centrist Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI.
Mr. Peña Nieto, 45, distances himself from the old guard by pointing out that he grew up in a democratizing Mexico. But he was raised among a group of wily PRI power brokers in the populous state of Mexico surrounding the capital. Even his pompous language – he refers to himself as “your servant” – and his gelled half-pompadour evoke an earlier political age.
He worked his way up through state party and government ranks until he was tapped to run for governor in 2005. He began far behind but won by 23 points, lifted by a gimmick in which a notary signed each of his 608 campaign promises.
For the next six years, his name recognition grew, fueled by exposure on the giant Televisa network. He bought considerable ad time, but news coverage was also part of the package. The network ran a special broadcast in December 2009, for example, to cover his trip to the Vatican, where he introduced his second wife, a telenovela star, to Pope Benedict.
He took the campaign pledge strategy national this year and added policy proposals – tax reform, a national social security system, a limited opening of the state-run oil company – that suggested change without rupture.
None of it impressed commentators. The writer Carlos Fuentes described him as a “very small” personality and added, “He will need more help than a sinking ship.”
Mr. Peña Nieto defended the PRI’s return as part of Mexico’s new democracy. “Society judges political parties based on the results that they give,” he said in an interview. “When they don’t meet the population’s needs, when they are not up to expectations, that leaves society free to pick other parties.”
Josefina Vázquez Mota
Candidate of the National Action Party
An economist from a modest Mexico City background, Ms. Vázquez Mota first campaigned as “different,” then as the first woman to run for president, and finally, when it seemed clear to everybody but her that she was in third place, she ran as simply “the best.”
The shifting messages were evidence of a floundering strategy that few expected from Ms. Vázquez Mota, 51, after she beat the leadership of the conservative National Action Party, or PAN, to win the nomination.
If anybody could connect with voters worn out by the violence of President Felipe Calderón’s drug war and dispirited by his party’s failure to strongly improve people’s lives after 12 years in government, it should have been Ms. Vázquez Mota.
Ms. Vázquez Mota has served as social development secretary and in the education ministry, led her party in Congress, maintains contacts with business and spent time as a motivational speaker.
“She has never lost her compass,” Luis Rubio, director of the Center of Research for Development, a Mexico City policy group, and a supporter of Ms. Vázquez Mota, wrote recently. “Always, even under the worst circumstances, she has known how to regroup and continue forward.”
Many expected Ms. Vázquez Mota to generate enthusiasm among women voters. In a best-selling self-help book she wrote a decade ago, Ms. Vázquez Mota urged women to take control of their own lives, although she has never campaigned for feminist causes.
“Being a woman for me has always been a strength but also a challenge,” she said in an interview.
Without breaking with Mr. Calderón, she has promised to build on economic stability. She pledged to shift the drug war’s emphasis to protecting “the security of families.” And she suggested she would take on Elba Ester Gordillo, the powerful head of Mexico’s teachers’ union, who had engineered her removal from the education ministry.
But she has been unable to divorce her candidacy from the government’s record. She is lagging in the polls and her party’s support is slipping as well.
She also ran a negative campaign against Mr. Peña Nieto – associating him with a parade of corrupt PRI politicians – but it apparently failed to sway voters and may have hurt her image.
Ms. Vázquez Mota is “intelligent,” wrote Lydia Cacho, a feminist journalist and activist, but she is “captive to a party that is self-destructing.”