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The leaderless lectern

April 30, 2006

THE FRONT-RUNNER IN MEXICO'S presidential race has taken a deserved tumble in the polls. Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, the leftist former mayor of Mexico City, refused to participate last week in the first of two debates of the campaign. An empty lectern was appropriately set up to represent his absence, as his two major-party opponents as well as two minor-party candidates debated Mexico's future.

It's a far graver offense for a Mexican presidential candidate to refuse to debate than it would be for a U.S. candidate. After the suffocating 71-year rule of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, Mexico's is still a fledgling democracy. In 2000, Vicente Fox, who is barred by the constitution from running for a second term as president, broke the PRI's streak, thanks in part to the much-appreciated novelty of presidential debates.

Lopez Obrador likes to portray himself as a scrappy victim of big-media conspiracies, making it doubly hypocritical of him to refuse to debate merely because he is a front-runner. The empty lectern Tuesday night may have been symptomatic of other flaws in Lopez Obrador's temperament. He is charismatic and genuinely interested in helping Mexico's underprivileged, but he is quick to assume the mantle of people's martyr and to act as if the presidency is already his.

Lopez Obrador and his advisors doth protest too much about legitimate attacks from his opponents -- such as the charge that his vague big-spending economic plans are dangerous -- and are quick to engage in churlish name-calling, including of Fox. The question of whether Lopez Obrador can play well with others (Mexico's Congress, courts, other nations) remains open, and it may be a concern reflected in recent poll numbers, which show his lead dropping from double digits to a few points.

Felipe Calderon, a conservative technocrat from Fox's National Action Party who will never be accused of oozing charm, is the man gaining from Lopez Obrador's fall. A poll in the Mexico City newspaper Reforma released on the morning of the debate had Calderon ahead of Lopez Obrador by three points. Roberto Madrazo, the PRI's candidate, is in third place with about a quarter of the electorate; he is finding it hard to shake off his association with his party's corrupt past.

There is still a lot of campaigning left before Mexicans go to the polls July 2, and Lopez Obrador will remain a formidable competitor. He has wisely agreed to participate in a second debate in June. But even before then, he will have to start fleshing out his plans for Mexico -- and start engaging in the democratic process in a more respectful manner.

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