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The Jockeying Jumps the Gun in the Race for Mexican Presidency

Candidates are already positioning themselves for the 2006 election. An ex-foreign minister tries to boost chances by attacking the top parties.

March 31, 2004|Richard Boudreaux | Times Staff Writer

MEXICO CITY — Jorge G. Castaneda, who jetted around the world as Mexico's foreign minister, appears on the streets of its capital in a leather jacket and swaggers toward a television camera. He calls himself an outsider, a voice for millions of Mexicans fed up with politicians.

"I am a citizens' candidate for president," Castaneda says in a 20-second spot broadcast daily. "This is a message of the many citizens who no longer feel represented by the political parties.... Here and now, we begin this great citizens' movement."

More than two years before the election, Mexico's presidential race is underway. At least four people have declared they are running, and a dozen or so others are acting like candidates to succeed President Vicente Fox, who is barred from reelection.

Mexicans are unaccustomed to drawn-out political campaigns. Many see the early intensity of this one as a sign that the six-year Fox presidency -- which ended seven decades of autocratic rule by the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, but has fallen short of its promised reforms -- is running out of steam.

The independent candidacy of Castaneda, who has never belonged to a political party or run for office, comes at a time when corruption, once virtually monopolized by the PRI, is tainting all the major parties and discrediting Mexico's multiparty system.

Launching his candidacy last week, Castaneda asserted that the PRI, Fox's center-right National Action Party and the leftist Democratic Revolution Party, or PRD, had "kidnapped the democracy we built." Those parties are expected to dominate the 2006 race.

"They are so rotten, so corrupt, so anachronistic that we need a new founding of political parties," Castaneda said in an interview. "Am I an enemy of political parties? No. On the contrary, there is no way a democracy can work without them. But there is no way Mexican democracy can work with these political parties."

Independent outsiders have won the presidency in several Latin American countries in recent years -- including Hugo Chavez in Venezuela and Alejandro Toledo in Peru. Each filled a vacuum left by an erosion of faith in political parties and institutions.

In Mexico, 60% of registered voters did not participate in midterm congressional elections last year, and another 10% voted for candidates from outside the three main parties. Mexico City Mayor Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, who had been the clear front-runner in the 2006 race for months, suffered a blow this month when videotapes showed one top aide gambling for high stakes in Las Vegas and another accepting cash bribes from a businessman.

A poll last week in the Milenio newspaper put Lopez Obrador, of the PRD, in a virtual tie at 30% with his nearest rivals -- PRI President Roberto Madrazo and Interior Minister Santiago Creel, a member of Fox's party. Although none has announced his candidacy, the three are regarded as favorites to be nominated by their parties.

That has not stopped other hopefuls. Cuauhtemoc Cardenas of the PRD has launched his fourth bid for the presidency. Sen. Carlos Medina Plasencia is the first to declare from Fox's party. Fox's wife, Marta Sahagun, has not ruled out a bid for that party's nomination.

Miguel Angel Nunez Soto, the PRI governor of Hidalgo state, has announced a bid for the party's nomination and criticized Madrazo for blocking Fox's proposals in Congress to raise taxes and open energy markets to private investment. Soto and other PRI governors -- notably Arturo Montiel of the state of Mexico and Enrique Martinez of Coahuila -- are spending state funds for nationwide ads to tout their achievements.

Against this field, Castaneda has polled as high as 8% in recent surveys. But he must overcome a ruling by election officials that he cannot run as an independent. He has gone to court, citing the constitutional right of any Mexican to hold office. If he loses, he says he will seek a small party's nomination. He will also try to raise his poll numbers to 15% -- the minimum he figures is needed to gain a spot in televised debates with other candidates.

"Trying to break the big parties' dominance is going to be an uphill fight," said pollster Daniel Lund. "Once the PRI's monopoly was broken, everything in the system was replaced by an oligopoly of the three majors. That's the key to Mexico's political stability. They won't give that up easily."

An academic and author, Castaneda joined Fox's campaign in 2000, then spent two years as foreign minister, trying to improve U.S.-Mexican relations. He quit in January 2003 and has traveled to more than 40 cities.

His "campaign of ideas" offers this prescription: The president should quit trying to get economic bills through a deadlocked Congress. Instead, he should finance Mexico's biggest needs -- new jobs and better schools -- by increasing oil production and exports, relaxing decades of cautious management of oil reserves. New laws can eventually transform the political system, he says, making Congress more accountable to voters and receptive to tax and energy reform.

"Castaneda is trying to pick up the banner of change that Fox dropped when he decided early on to seek a policy of accommodation with the PRI in Congress," political scientist Denise Dresser said.

His candidacy has drawn darts not only from the big parties but from independent commentators such as Jesus Silva-Herzog Marquez, who wrote in the newspaper Reforma this week that Castaneda's formula is "frankly authoritarian."

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