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Stealth Political Ads Anger Rivals of Mexico's Fox

Critics view the service spots as propaganda in advance of a July 6 vote. The president pulls the series, which had been a public relations coup.

June 17, 2003|Richard Boudreaux | Times Staff Writer

MEXICO CITY — "Hey, Fox!" a boy shouts, interrupting his soccer game to address the leader of Mexico. "What can I do to become as huge as you?"

Vicente Fox chuckles, looking down at a television camera positioned to exaggerate his 6-foot-6-inch height. "Drink milk," the president responds.

"My government is distributing fortified milk ... throughout the country," Fox goes on, touting a program of subsidized milk for the poor. "Drink some and, after a while, I won't be able to call you 'kid.' "

The slick, 30-second spot -- along with others featuring citizen inquiries and presidential replies -- has Mexican politics in an uproar. Opposition leaders complain that Fox is on TV an average of 85 minutes a day, in slots meant for public service announcements, to help his National Action Party stand taller in the eyes of voters who will elect mayors, governors and legislators on July 6.

Bowing to criticism, Fox on Sunday agreed to halt the ad series, beginning today, until after the election.

The independent Federal Election Institute had asked him to withdraw the spots to avoid confusion with other campaign advertising, but it had no authority to force compliance. Fox yielded after all 17 state governors of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, offered to pull the plug on more modest public service spots boasting their achievements. Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, Mexico City's popular mayor and a rising star in the Democratic Revolution Party, voluntarily halted his own ads last week.

The accord sets a precedent in Mexico's democratic transition after seven decades of rule by the PRI. Although a law limits campaign spending by each party, the government itself faces no restraints on public service ads that might be construed as election propaganda.

The deal also reflects Fox's limitations as he nears the midpoint of his six-year term. The charismatic rancher-politician, whose election in 2000 ended the PRI's monopoly, has made few stabs at compromise and has failed to push key reform proposals through a Congress that is deadlocked and likely to remain so.

The Mexican leader is still enormously popular, but having a bad year. Doctors persuaded him to shed his trademark cowboy boots after back surgery in March. Then a biography of First Lady Marta Sahagun hit the bookstores, airing the couple's dirty laundry and portraying her as a schemer with her own presidential ambitions. Commentators began to speak of the 60-year-old president, who is ineligible for re-election, as a lame duck.

A low point came when Fox and his wife campaigned for their party in the state of Mexico, similar to President Bush's appearances on behalf of Republicans running for Congress last fall. Fox's effort backfired, many commentators agreed, because Mexicans want their president to be above partisan politics. The PAN lost the state elections and the party's candidates in other races asked Fox to stay away.

His aides then settled on a "Rose Garden strategy," keeping Fox at Los Pinos -- the Mexican White House -- and looking presidential. Instead of straying from prepared texts and misspeaking, as he often does on trips, Fox became the beaming, folksy star of the TV spots, plugging government programs for home builders, job seekers, senior citizens and students.

The ads, titled "Mexico Asks, Fox Responds," have aired more often than the campaign spots for all political parties combined. They never mention Fox's party, and Francisco Ortiz, his chief image maker, insists that they have nothing to do with the election.

"The idea is to let people know what the government can do for them," Ortiz told the newspaper Reforma. "To govern is to communicate."

But the ads have been a public relations coup, coinciding for six weeks with a rise in Fox's personal ratings (to about 64%) and the proportion of declared PAN voters (to about 37%). When PAN voters were asked to explain their preference, they often parroted lines from Fox's ads, according to Daniel Lund of the MUND Americas polling firm.

"They have internalized the message," Lund said. "This is something that can be done only with highly repetitive ads."

Many Mexicans have criticized the commercials as wasteful propaganda that steals resources from the very projects they promote. TV networks charge the government for air time in the form of tax deductions, and some opposition leaders calculated that Fox's ads were costing the treasury $650,000 a day.

Ernesto Zedillo, the last PRI president, aired similar ads before elections in 1997 and 2000, but Fox's outnumber his about 4 to 1. The head of the PRI, Roberto Madrazo, accused Fox of perpetuating an unfair campaign practice that Fox himself had denounced as a candidate.

A moderate by PRI standards, Madrazo last week threatened to make things harder for Fox after the election "if he keeps campaigning."

Otherwise, Madrazo hinted, his bloc in the new Congress might be more open to compromise on Fox's proposals to privatize electricity production and rewrite the labor code to make it easier to fire workers.

Fox moved to drop the ads after concluding that the recent surge by his party will fall short. Pollsters are divided on whether the PAN will erase the PRI's plurality in the 500-seat lower Chamber of Deputies (the Senate is not up for election), but Fox acknowledged last week what they all agree on: No party will control either house.

In announcing Fox's decision on the ads, Interior Minister Santiago Creel said he hoped it would help the government and its rivals "build the necessary political accords to advance the reforms that society demands."

An editorial cartoon Monday in Reforma showed a television screen, blank except for two things: a hand, evidently Fox's, flashing V for victory, and a handwritten note reading, "I'll be back after July 6."

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