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High stakes and rampant voter apathy in upcoming Mexican elections

The Green Party, with its death penalty stance and toucan logo, the divided PRD and its unofficial face, Mariana, and the PAN, with its focus on the drug war, provide a colorful campaign.

July 03, 2009|Ken Ellingwood

MEXICO CITY — Mexicans vote Sunday, but the biggest story may be how many don't bother. At stake are all 500 seats in the lower house of Congress, six governorships and scores of local posts. But apathy and disgust with politics are rampant. Many voters plan to deface their ballots in protest.

Every campaign, however, offers moments that are memorable, incongruous, weird. Here are a few tidbits from Mexico, the 2009 edition.

The name says green, but the stance is pure red meat.

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"Death penalty for murderers and kidnappers," the campaign banners exhort in block letters.

It's not an uncommon sentiment in Mexico, where capital punishment is banned and residents are fed up with frequent kidnappings and a homicide total that topped 6,000 last year, mainly because of clashes between drug-trafficking gangs.

What's surprising is which party has staked its campaign on restoring executions, outlawed here in 2005. It's the Green Party, whose logo features a yellow-and-red-beaked toucan, not your usual emblem of ironhandedness.

The death penalty stance has left many liberal-minded Mexican environmentalists scratching their heads. (Even Mexican actor Raul Araiza, who appears in the party's TV spots, says he's against the death penalty.) European Greens spurned the Mexican party last winter over the death penalty plank.

But the Green Party in Mexico has a history of, um, flexibility. In 2000, it backed the conservative National Action Party, or PAN, when that party won the presidency. Now it has joined hands with the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, in what could end up a majority bloc in Congress.

The toucan stays.

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Your political party has suffered a bad patch -- a heartbreaking loss in the 2006 presidential election and a nasty leadership fight that has turned it into a national laughingstock. You need an image boost, and something conveying cute and cuddly couldn't hurt.

Or could it?

Seven-year-old Mariana, with big eyes, braids and a missing tooth, has become the unofficial face of the left-leaning Democratic Revolution Party and one of the most visible characters of the campaign. She shows up on posters and in television spots with the PRD's president, Jesus Ortega, who won a bitter internal campaign last year.

But because of overexposure, plain meanness or both, Mariana has engendered a sometimes-vicious backlash.

The newspaper El Universal reported last week on an Internet campaign devoted to saying horrid things about the girl. She is mocked on Facebook groups with names like "I hate Mariana, the PRD girl."

Some critics apparently don't like her voice. Others say they're sick of seeing her everywhere. ("The only thing left is for her to show up in the bathroom," one sniped.) Some of the commentary is politically motivated; others, flat-out racist, are based on the girl's vaguely Asian looks.

A PRD spokeswoman told El Universal that the girl represents values the party supports, including honesty, transparency and renewal. But enough is probably enough. After the vote, the spokeswoman said, the youngster "will go her own way."

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It may seem risky to play up an inconclusive drug war that has claimed about 11,000 lives. But President Felipe Calderon's PAN is doing just that, airing campaign spots that show video of drug traffickers being arrested and piles of marijuana and cocaine seized.

Will the ads remind voters of just how violent a place Mexico has become since Calderon declared war on traffickers in late 2006?

Or will they convince Mexicans that, as the spots say, the administration is protecting their children from the scourge of drugs and violence as no government before it?

Pollsters say the PAN seems to have succeeded in painting the war as a winning -- or at least courageous -- battle. Public support for the administration's anti-crime crusade is high.

But foes say the PAN has politicized the drug war by accusing its main competitor, the PRI, of colluding with traffickers and, on the eve of elections, by rounding up 30 local and state officials on suspicion of having ties to cartels in Michoacan state.

Almost all belonged to rival parties.

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ken.ellingwood@latimes.com

Times staff writer Tracy Wilkinson contributed to this report.

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