Denise Dresser
"Blood Sport:
The Politics of
Mexico's Presidential Elections"

April 26, 2000

Marny Requa

Mexicans can expect the next two months of the campaign for the presidency to be the most heated, Professor Denise Dresser said, in an election that is arguably the most important for the country in the last century. Professor Dresser was the last of six lecturers in the Mexican Transitions series of events at CLAS. She is a professor of political science at the Instituto Tecnológico Autónomo de México (ITAM) and a visiting fellow at the Pacific Council, a research institution affiliated with the University of Southern California. She has been a political analyst for the past 12 years.

Denise Dresser
Professor Dresser's talk fell on the day after the televised debate in Mexico City among the six presidential candidates. Polls showed that the leading opposition candidate, Vicente Fox (PAN) won the debate, adding to the momentum that has been building behind him in the last few months. According to Dresser, he came across as a statesman, reaching out to the other candidates and maintaining control of the debate. In contrast, the PRI candidate, Francisco Labastida, looked as if was on the defensive, having to "claw his way to the top," Dresser said. While slightly ahead of Fox in most polls (and way ahead of the other candidates), the fact that Labastida is not leading by a larger margin is significant in a country that has been ruled by the PRI for more than 70 years.

Fox was fortunate, Dresser said, because he always spoke after Labastida. In the most cited exchange of the evening, Labastida listed all of the names Fox has called him during the race, including "shorty," "a queer," and "henpecked," commenting how it offends Mexican families. In what Dresser deemed a brilliant response, Fox said, "Someday I'll stop being crude, but you guys will never stop being devious, bad governors and corrupt." With this, he got the best of Labastida, in the opinion of most viewers. Fox further caused a stir -- particularly in the Labastida camp -- by saying in a post-debate interview that he had been handed copies of Labastida's speeches before the debate.

The PRD candidate Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas has "regressed to political purism," Dresser said. During the debate he emphasized that a vote for him isn't a wasted vote, as many Mexicans believe, but a way to push forward the Mexican transition. He was ranked neck and neck with Labastida in some debate polls -- demonstrating how poorly Labastida did, Dresser said -- but is holding around 12 percent in general campaign polls. According to Dresser, lackluster support for Cárdenas is a result of his record as the mayor of Mexico City, his inability to be flexible in light of the Fox phenomenon, PRD infighting, and the pressures of having to negotiate with other parties in the PRD's coalition. Cárdenas believes that stepping out of the race to support Fox could destroy the PRD and damage the left in Mexico, Dresser said. Regardless, the party will have to reconfigure itself after the election. Winning the mayorship in Mexico City, also to be voted on July 2, may give the PRD a new lease on life.

During the lecture, Dresser traced the ebbs and flows of Fox and Labastida's campaigns. Fox's support slipped right after the PRI primary last fall and, according to Dresser, the PRI assumed Fox would self-destruct and that other candidates would insulate Labastida from him, or any particular candidate. Because of this, Labastida became "the invisible man," complacent and out of the public eye. To the surprise of the PRI and analysts, Fox stubbornly persisted, transforming himself from "the Marlboro Man" to a statesman. He took a trip to Washington DC. He now dons suits as often as he does his signature cowboy boots, demonstrating to the Mexican people that he is presidential, and can be trusted. Fox is currently leading Labastida in cities, and among young people and students; Labastida is ahead in rural areas -- by about 2 to 1 -- and with older voters. The votes that are up for grabs, Dresser said, are those of 30- to 40-year-olds, of poor women, and in Mexico City.

Dresser used an article in the Mexican magazine Milenio to exemplify Fox's recent strategy. With Fox in a suit on the cover, with the cover line "El Nuevo Vicente Fox" (The New Vicente Fox), the piece portrays him as an atypical PANísta. According to Dresser, Fox is now trying to court the left and PRD voters, assuming that PAN voters have no other option but to vote for him. And so he says he's "a little on the left" in the article, "offering neoliberalism with a democratic face," Dresser said, while also trying to assuage fears of instability if the PRI is ousted from the executive branch. Throughout his campaign, he has shown himself to be anything but a traditional PAN candidate. While he pays lip service to the PAN and worked to become their candidate, it is also clear that he is a flexible and independent thinker. He has said that he would have a pluralist cabinet -- making analysts think it may be difficult for him to negotiate with the PAN on policy issues if he becomes president. According to Dresser, whoever governs Mexico will have to govern down the center. She mentioned that even Labastida may appoint a pluralist cabinet if elected.

Dresser outlined two possible scenarios come July 2, the day of the election. In the first, Labastida would win by a small margin leaving Fox with the option of challenging the results -- something he has vowed to do if Labastida wins by three points or less. It is unclear if PAN and PRD officials would support him in anything other than a legal challenge to the election. For example, if the PRD wins the mayorship of Mexico City, it is unlikely they would take to the streets with Fox. According to Dresser, a victory by Labastida is more likely to happen if the U.S. economy falters. She also said that media will play a significant role in the outcome: While the amount of coverage is currently equal between the two main candidates, the quality of that coverage is not. Three of five media references to Fox are negative, she explained.

In Dresser's second scenario, Fox would win by a small majority, but the PRI would maintain their majority in Congress. Fox has said he would welcome this dynamic, having worked with a PRI-controlled legislature as governor of Guanajuato. Analysts fear, however, that this could lead to stalemate. It would change the face of the PRI certainly, forcing a new cadre of leaders to emerge. According to Dresser, the deficit of leadership is what has led to the only moderately popular Labastida being the PRI candidate. If a shake-out occurred in the PRI, many officials may turn to the PRD or PAN.

Dresser concluded by addressing the issue of Mexico's transition. Many political analysts consider the transition to have occurred because of the nature of this election. To Dresser, however, the transition will only be complete when a non-PRI president is in power. Only then will the pace of change increase in Mexico. The next two months, Dresser said, will be the "bloodiest" of the election. Now that the PRI has recognized Fox as the enemy, they have stepped up the pressure both to assure Labastida's win and Fox's defeat. And, according to Dresser, if the PRI considers you to be the enemy, "your life can be nasty, brutal, and short."


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