Mexican presidential candidate Josefina Vazquez Mota celebrates her… (Alfredo Estrella / AFP/Getty…)
Reporting from Mexico City — "I will be the first woman president of Mexico."
Thus declared Josefina Vazquez Mota on the night this month when she was officially crowned the incumbent party's candidate in upcoming national elections.
A former congresswoman and education minister, Vazquez Mota, 51, has eagerly embraced her historic position as Mexico's first female presidential candidate for a major political party. In a contest where she trails the leader by a wide margin, she does not hesitate to play the so-called gender card at chosen moments.
In a meeting with foreign journalists last year, she said she was confident that traditionally machista Mexico was ready for a female leader.
"We have won many campaigns for many men. The moment has come to win campaigns for ourselves," she said, grouping herself with Chile'sMichelle Bachelet andBrazil'sDilma Rousseff.
Yet it's a fine line that Vazquez Mota must tread because she represents a party, National Action, or the PAN, that is very conservative on many of the social issues considered most important to women. In that same meeting with journalists, she made it clear that she hewed to the heavily Catholic PAN's opposition to abortion and gay marriage.
"What a dilemma for feminism," Elia Baltazar, the founder of a grass-roots advocacy group for journalists, said in an online forum about the newly minted candidate. "There is not a single line in her discourse that is committed to the many unresolved issues facing women in this country."
Instead of pursuing an agenda of progressive women's causes, Vazquez Mota will cast herself as a more traditional "everywoman" who appeals to homemakers and female working stiffs.
Her supporters hope that voters will find her comforting and reassuring at a particularly tumultuous time in Mexican history, when a bloody drug war waged by President Felipe Calderon, of the PAN, has killed more than 50,000 people in slightly more than five years.
Her background reinforces the more consoling image: One of seven siblings, she is married to her first boyfriend, someone she has known since she was 14. They have three daughters aged 17 to 24 (two named after the Virgin Mary) who seem to evince wholesomeness.
In a country where family relations are still revered, "she wants to show that she can take care of Mexicans the way she takes care of her family, that she can make them feel safe," said Mexican political scientist Rodolfo Hernandez Guerrero, director of the Center for U.S.-Mexico Studies at the University of Texas at Dallas.
Ultimately, it is not her sex that will prove her greatest obstacle to victory in the July 1 vote. She is saddled with the legacy of an increasingly unpopular government. The rival Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, and its handsome candidate, Enrique Peña Nieto, lead in the polls by a double-digit margin.
"This is not about gender," PRI national chairman Pedro Joaquin Coldwell told reporters after Vazquez Mota's nomination. "This is about continuity, and not wanting more of the same."
The PRI ruled for seven decades with a heavy hand until losing the presidency in 2000 to the first PAN president, Vicente Fox. The PRI is intent on returning to the pinnacle of power.
It is just possible that the candidacy of a woman holds enough novelty that Vazquez Mota can portray herself as a real alternative to the PAN that has governed through two terms. Not an easy case to make, given her own participation in those governments.
Though she may often appear demure and forever adorned with a red-carpet smile, she also knows how to play rough-and-tumble politics, say both admirers and detractors.
"I have watched her negotiate with" members of all major political factions, including her own, Guadalupe Loaeza, a veteran social commentator most often associated with the left, wrote in a surprisingly laudatory column. "And never did I see her lose her head. Because she understands that they are adversaries, not enemies. She debates with a crushing diplomacy and, most important, she knows how to listen."
Nor has Vazquez Mota escaped the scandals that dog many a politician in Mexico. Newspaper exposes claim that millions of pesos were diverted from the Social Development Ministry when she headed it in the first half of the 2000s, and funneled into PAN campaigns. (No formal charges ever came of the allegations, and she has not directly addressed the matter.)
Analysts say Vazquez Mota will have to fine-tune her campaign platform quickly to move beyond the short-on-specifics platitudes that dominated the internal PAN primary. And she will have to formulate a security policy confronting drug cartels that differs from Calderon's much-criticized military strategy — while seeming to remain loyal to the party leadership.