By José de Córdoba and David Luhnow, published in The Wall Street Journal.
MEXICO CITY—The unlikely rise of a handsome young man who overcomes tragedy to be elected the president of Mexico sounds like a script for one of the wildly popular Spanish-language soap operas produced and aired by Grupo Televisa TV +1.70% SAB, the Spanish-speaking world’s biggest broadcaster.
It is no fairy tale. On Sunday, Enrique Peña Nieto, whose first wife died suddenly while he was a governor, is favored to win Mexico’s presidential election, with polls showing double-digit leads over his two main rivals, the leftist Andrés Manuel López Obrador and conservative Josefina Vázquez Mota.
Mexican voters, eager for change, hope the election kick-starts the economy after a dozen years of slow growth and, more recently, a spiral of barbaric drug violence they have seen under two presidents of the National Action Party, known as PAN. Mr. Peña Nieto’s win would return the country’s former ruling party to power after it finished a distant third in the last presidential contest.
Yet, Mr. Peña Nieto has spent much of the campaign trying to overcome the soap-opera image. The 45-year-old politician with movie-star looks has been criticized for his long-standing relationship with Televisa, Mexico’s dominant TV network and news source that even supporters agree helped Mr. Peña Nieto forge a successful image and political career.
The front-runner has said he can take on Mexico’s vested interests, including union bosses and leaders of corporations and family-owned businesses that dominate their respective industries and use cozy political ties to stifle competition. He has also promised to open up Mexico’s nationalized oil and gas business to foreign investment to spark an economic boom.
Beginning in 2005, Televisa’s marketing gurus worked to turn Mr. Peña Nieto into a political star with relentless promotion and the reach of a network with a 70% market share of broadcast TV viewers.
After his wife’s death in 2007, Mr. Peña Nieto married a former Televisa soap-opera starlet adored by millions of fans. His gubernatorial and presidential campaign ads were made by some of the biggest names in the soap-opera business. And his administration paid millions to Televisa for ads and favorable TV coverage while he served as governor of the state of Mexico from 2005 to 2011.
The campaign said the governor’s administration paid for ads and so-called infomercials, which were ads presented as news, but denied Televisa slanted its news coverage.
Televisa said it gave critical news coverage of the Peña Nieto administration, citing the abusive behavior of police sent to quell a 2006 uprising.
“The construction of Peña Nieto’s image is the very deliberate work of Televisa,” said Epigmenio Ibarra, a TV producer who supports Mr. López Obrador, the former Mexico City mayor and runner-up in the 2006 presidential election.
The relationship between Mr. Peña Nieto and Televisa has erupted as the presidential election’s most controversial issue, drowning out such problems as jobs or the nation’s drug war, which has tallied roughly 55,000 deaths since President Felipe Calderón took office in 2006.
Opponents and protesters have railed against an alleged alliance between Televisa and TV Azteca—which together capture about 95% of broadcast TV viewers—to help elect Mr. Peña Nieto in exchange for protection of their business interests.
Aides to Mr. Peña Nieto said his record and charisma have made him popular, not Televisa. “Lots of politicians get favorable coverage and aren’t that popular,” said Luis Videgaray, Mr. Peña Nieto’s campaign manager.
Mr. Peña Nieto, of the country’s former ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, was born into a political clan in the state of Mexico. The area was long a bastion for the PRI, which ruled Mexico for 71 years until it lost the presidential election in 2000.
He is related to six past state governors and rose through the ranks of the state bureaucracy with political skill.
While governor, he was credited with a tax reform that raised revenues, cut state debt and led to a boom in public works. He soon became the face of a revamped PRI.
Earlier this year, Mr. Peña Nieto held a 25-percentage-point lead in polls—now narrowed to about 15—and his charm extends beyond the ballot box: 88% of married Mexican women said they would cheat on their husbands with Mr. Peña Nieto, according to a poll commissioned by the dating agency Hounters.com
Mr. Peña Nieto turned up two months ago on a TV program called “Todo ParaLa Mujer,” or “Everything for Women,” a show broadcast on a Televisa subsidiary. “Tonight, it’s such a pleasure for me to welcome Enrique Peña Nieto, the hunk of hunks,” said the show’s host Maxine Woodside. Among her questions was: “Do you play soccer?”
Televisa said critics have exaggerated its relationship with Mr. Peña Nieto. The broadcaster said its coverage has been fair. Mr. Peña Nieto, the network said, was grilled recently on its news program “Tercer Grado,” or the “Third Degree.”
But Televisa’s long history with the PRI has raised doubts among some voters that Mr. Peña Nieto can act independently. During most of the PRI’s hold on power, Televisa enjoyed a broadcast monopoly that guaranteed profit in exchange for favorable government coverage.
The rise of competing parties changed matters, beginning in 2000 with the election of Vicente Fox of the conservative PAN party. Mexico’s election agency now requires that broadcasters give candidates roughly equal time and fair coverage.
Televisa and TV Azteca, a former government network privatized in the waning years of the PRI’s dominance, found new ways to flex their muscle.
In past legislatures, candidates with ties to the TV networks have been placed in key committees that oversee the industry. In 2006, lawmakers passed a law partially written by the TV companies that gave them huge concessions, including free, renewable 20-year licenses that any potential rivals would have to pay for. The so-called Televisa Law caused a public outcry and was later overturned by the Supreme Court.
In Sunday’s election, 17 congressional candidates of the PRI and its electoral ally the Green Party have ties to the networks.
Politicians who run afoul of the broadcasters risk being erased from the airwaves. In 2007, conservative senator Santiago Creel pushed for laws which compelled the TV networks to air electoral spots free, which would have cost the companies millions in lost revenue.
Televisa’s response was to stop covering Mr. Creel. The following year, the network even blurred his face on air when the senator appeared on a congressional panel.
Leopoldo Gómez, the head of Televisa’s news division, said the blurring of Mr. Creel’s face was done by an editor who was following network instructions not to broadcast coverage of the senator. “The editor was suspended,” he said.
Mr. Peña Nieto, in contrast, basked in Televisa’s spotlight. The marketing strategy for his 2005 governor’s campaign was organized by Televisa’s vice president for sales and marketing, Alejandro Quintero.
The team included Ana María Olabuenaga, a savvy image maker famous for her ad campaign for Palacio de Hierro, Mexico’s upscale department store. The store campaign features sleek women, many blonde and fair-skinned, saying they are “Totally Palacio.”
“Televisa’s marketing gurus worked to turn Enrique Peña Nieto into a political star.”
Yessica de Lamadrid, one of the members of Mr. Quintero’s team, said advisers decided that politicians were so distrusted by voters that Mr. Peña Nieto should be promoted as his own brand—a combination of politician and rock star. Billboards, usually featuring close-ups of the candidate, echoed the “Totally Palacio” campaign.
The team also focused on portraying him as a candidate who keeps promises. His gubernatorial campaign pledges—building roads and such—were signed in front of a public notary. Ms. De Lamadrid came up with a catch phrase to accompany the ads: “Te lo firmo, y te lo cumplo:” I will sign, and I will deliver.
Mr. Peña Nieto overcame a 12 percentage point deficit to win.
As TV coverage of Mr. Peña Nieto grew, so did his poll numbers. After his wife Mónica Pretelini died in early 2007 of epilepsy, Mr. Peña Nieto dated three women linked to Televisa, including a former news anchor and soap star Angèlica Rivera, known to her fans as “La Gaviota,” or the Seagull.
Ms. Rivera was most famous for “Destilando Amor,” a 2007 soap about an impoverished girl who harvests agave for tequila. In 2008, as red, heart-shaped balloons rained down, Mr. Peña Nieto acknowledged they were dating during an appearance on Shalala, a popular woman’s program on TV Azteca.
Televisa got a bigger scoop, when Mr. Peña Nieto introduced Ms. Rivera as his fiancée to Pope Benedict XVI, making public their engagement during an official visit to the Vatican.
The pair have since become the Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie of Mexico. Their 2008 nuptials were treated like a royal wedding in entertainment magazines owned by Televisa.
Mr. Quintero, part-owner of several companies that, according to former and current top Mexican officials, specialize in political advertising and consulting and brokered a deal with the Peña Nieto administration soon after it won the governor’s race. The state government paid Televisa millions of dollars a year for advertising in exchange for favorable news coverage and for political promotion disguised as news coverage, these people say.
The practice is legal, but Televisa has said it has since halted such arrangements.
Proceso, Mexico’s leading news magazine, reported on Mr. Quintero’s close relationship with Mr. Peña Nieto as far back as 2005, making some executives in the company uncomfortable, people close to Televisa said. Mr. Quintero bragged about having “created” Mr. Peña Nieto to friends and colleagues, according to several people close to Televisa and Mr. Quintero.
“He would call the governor on his cellphone in front of other people just to show how close they were,” said one person close to the company.
In an email, Mr. Quintero denied such phone calls or bragging about “creating” Mr. Peña Nieto. He said his only role in Mr. Peña Nieto’s communications strategy was to connect him with “providers of specialized publicity, production and strategic services in 2005 and 2006.”
The TV advertising blitz by the Peña Nieto administration coincided with ramped-up coverage by Televisa, creating the impression the governor was getting something for his ads.
Mr. Gómez, the head of Televisa’s news division, said the increased coverage was driven by complaints the network was giving too much coverage to Mexico City, and its politically ambitious mayors, and too little to the surrounding state of Mexico, home to more than half the metropolitan area’s 20 million people.
“It was our conviction that the state of Mexico was very important and needed more coverage,” said Mr. Gómez.
Televisa had earlier been accused by the PRI and PAN of giving flattering coverage to the Mexico City government in exchange for ad money during the 2000-2005 administration of Mr. López Obrador, the leftist who narrowly lost the 2006 presidential race. During a recent presidential debate, Mr. López Obrador accused Mr. Peña Nieto of beholden to Televisa. The PRI candidate shot back: “If television could make a president, you’d be president.”
Politicians in all parties say it is customary for broadcasters to charge money for coverage. In a recent interview, Mr. Calderón called this practice widespread and a “national disgrace.”
Proceso published copies of alleged contracts between Televisa and Mr. Peña Nieto when he was governor that appear to be worth at least $35 million a year. Representatives of Mr. Peña Nieto and Televisa say the contracts were fake.
Using official data gathered by Fundar, an independent media watchdog group, Peña Nieto campaign officials reported the Peña Nieto administration spent about $55 million on publicity from 2005 to 2010, with about half going to Televisa. Miguel Pulido, the head of Fundar, said in an interview that the numbers released by the Peña Nieto administration were conflicting. He concluded that the amounts involved were far higher.
Since 2006, according to Securities and Exchange Commission filings made by Televisa and disclosed as related-party transactions, Mr. Quintero’s companies bought advertising from Televisa ranging from about $12 million in 2006 to about $30 million last year. Mr. Quintero declined to list his clients.
César Camacho, a former governor of the state of Mexico, said he doesn’t know whether the Peña Nieto government paid for favorable coverage. But, he said, “All of the governments of every party have arrangements with the networks.” The agreements cover interviews with administration officials or the grand opening of a bridge, he said, adding that he saw nothing wrong with the practice.
Televisa has since grown concerned about the close links between Mr. Quintero and Mr. Peña Nieto, partly from complaints by Mr. Calderón. Network officials said since late last year, Mr. Quintero has no longer been engaged in its political marketing. In an email, Mr. Quintero, who was abroad on vacation, said he didn’t plan to return to Mexico until after the election.