Luisa Maria Calderon, sister of Mexican President Felipe Calderon, responds… (Leovigildo Gonzalez, Reuters )
Reporting from Mexico City — Mexican President Felipe Calderon, whose conservative party is lagging in national popularity amid soaring drug violence, may have a source of hope close to home: his sister.
Luisa Maria Calderon, a 55-year-old former senator and the president's older sister, leads polls for governor of Michoacan state, where a victory Sunday could give their National Action Party, or PAN, a needed boost before next year's national elections.
The western state, long a corridor for illegal drugs, has been hit hard by rising violence, stoking worry of election day bloodshed or turnout damped by voter fear. Traffickers, who have meddled in previous Michoacan campaigns by bankrolling pliant candidates, hold sway over large swaths of the state.
Several candidates for lower offices quit this year after getting threats, and two groups of pollsters were seized by gunmen and held for several days.
On Nov. 2, assailants shot and killed Ricardo Guzman, the PAN mayor of La Piedad, as he handed out leaflets on behalf of party candidates in his hometown. Luisa Maria Calderon, who supports her brother's campaign against drug cartels as long overdue, dismissed suggestions that the slaying was meant as a warning to her or her brother.
"What's happened in Michoacan is that authority has not been exercised," she told a television interviewer a day later.
Michoacan carries important symbolic value. Besides being the Calderons' home turf, it was the first place where the president deployed troops against the cartels shortly after taking office in 2006.
Since then, the state has seen mayhem: hours-long gunfights between federal police and hit men, scores of killings stemming from a rupture in the once-dominant La Familia cartel and a grenade attack at an Independence Day event in 2008 that killed eight people.
The hard-fought gubernatorial race is mainly between Calderon, a single mother known to most as Cocoa, and Fausto Vallejo of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, which ruled Mexico with an iron grip for seven decades. Silvano Aureoles of the leftist Democratic Revolution Party, or PRD, which currently governs the state, trails amid broad discontent over the party's rule.
Calderon began in last place but appears to have surged to a modest lead in polls over Vallejo, a four-time mayor of Morelia, the state capital.
Her party hopes that come-from-behind drive could presage a long-shot turnaround in the presidential race. At the moment, Enrique Pena Nieto of the PRI, the former governor of the state of Mexico, is so far ahead in early polls that he is viewed as nearly unbeatable, even though the parties haven't chosen nominees yet.
But a PAN win in Michoacan might signal that it's too soon to call the 2102 race.
"It's an indicator that things change in a campaign, that electoral preferences change," said Jorge Buendia, a Mexico City pollster and analyst.
Although Calderon defends her brother's controversial crackdown, she frames the security issue more in terms of the need to improve education and opportunities for young people.
Despite the Calderon surname, the gubernatorial race is viewed mainly as a referendum on the troubled PRD, which was born in Michoacan and has held power there since 2002. A defeat would make Michoacan the third state surrendered by the fractious party in the last two years. The state's 3 million voters will also pick 40 local lawmakers and 113 mayors.
Felipe Calderon lost badly in a bid for governor in 1995, but his sister has proved an able campaigner, with a political identity separate from the president, who is barred by law from campaigning while in office.
"She's there not because of being his sister, but rather in spite of being his sister," said Alfonso Zarate, a political analyst in Mexico City. "She's a politician with personality, with character. She's an independent person."
As the race has tightened in these closing days, charges of old-style graft have surfaced. Vallejo was photographed a few weeks ago handing out peso notes to voters at a campaign stop. (He later claimed it was a humanitarian donation for a woman with cancer who had no money.) And a worsening corruption scandal around the PRI's national president, Humberto Moreira, has probably boosted Calderon.
Calderon's rivals, meanwhile, charge that she has violated campaign spending limits and say the federal government has improperly sought to swing the race in her favor by shipping bags of cement to Michoacan voters, a common ploy when the PRI ran things.
The PRD this week circulated leaflets seeking to tar Calderon by linking her to the drug war. "To vote for the president's sister is to vote for more violence, killings and blood for Michoacan," they said.
But newspaper columnist Sergio Sarmiento said the state needs a governor who can curb violence and spur the economy, whatever the surname.
"The family ties of whoever is charged with pushing these efforts matter little," Sarmiento wrote this week in the Reforma newspaper. "What's important is who can confront these monumental challenges."