June 25, 2012 2:54 pm

Peña Nieto eyes victory in Mexico race

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Enrique Peña Nieto©Reuters

Frontrunner: Enrique Peña Nieto holds his final campaign rally in Mexico City

Mexico is drowning under flags and political propaganda this week as the country’s three main presidential candidates crank up the energy during the last moments of the campaign, with rivals insisting they have a chance to beat Enrique Peña Nieto, the frontrunner.

“Nobody should have any doubt: we’re only six points behind the candidate of the PRI,” Josefina Vázquez Mota of the ruling conservative National Action party told 45,000 fervent supporters packed into Mexico City’s bullring on Saturday. “No one can stop us.”

In Tabasco, a rural state on Mexico’s gulf coast, thousands of people dressed in red and gold chanted “president” as Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the veteran leftwing campaigner, took to the stage.

But the political adrenalin was pumping hardest on Sunday at Mr Peña Nieto’s closing extravaganza in Mexico City’s Azteca football stadium, venue of the 1986 World Cup.

Even the hulking concrete stands of the world’s third-biggest football stadium shuddered as an estimated 100,000 fans took up his cheer of “Yes we can. Yes we can,” stamping their feet and banging drums.

The polls certainly suggest he can: with just days to go before 80m Mexicans can cast their votes on Sunday, most put Mr Peña Nieto at about 37 points – 14 points clear of his closest rivals – and with a chance of a congressional majority as well.

Mercedes Hernandez, an 18-year-old with a drum strapped around her waist in the Azteca stands, said she was going to cast her first vote for the 45-year-old former state governor. “He’s a man who delivers,” she said. “He’s going to be a great president.”

For all the excitement, the next president will have their work cut out. During the past six years, the country’s murder rate has almost tripled as the government has sent in the army to fight rich and well-armed drug gangs.

The domestic economy, although expected to grow 3.5 per cent this year, is stifled by oligopolies. Legislative gridlock has stymied attempts to push ahead with structural changes, including tax, energy and labour reforms.

Yet this campaign has mostly avoided discussing such challenges. Candidates and their detractors have instead focused on image. So Ms Vázquez Mota, who most polls say lies in third place, is accused of representing a continuation of 12 years of ineffectual PAN rule and more drug-related violence.

“The PAN has had its chance. All they have given us are bloody massacres,” said Karina Maya, a 31-year-old federal police officer.

Critics worry that victory for Mr López Obrador, polling in second place with about 23 per cent, would take Mexico down an anachronistic leftist path.

The PAN has had its chance. All they have given us are bloody massacres

- Karina Maya, police officer

Others fear that victory for Mr Peña Nieto could presage a return to the country’s darker and pre-democratic past, when the centrist PRI ruled Mexico for 71 uninterrupted years through political patronage and vote rigging. Little wonder that critics spotted the irony of the venue chosen for his campaign close: scene of Diego Maradona’s infamous “hand of God” goal.

Enrique Krauze, a prominent historian, argues that this last scenario is unlikely. Although a longtime critic of the PRI, he argues that Mexico has changed irrevocably since the party last ruled: the press is free, Congress has more power, the central bank is autonomous and civil society is finding its voice and increasingly holding its leaders to account.

Mexico “knows how to defend the democratic institutions that has taken so much effort to build”.

Nonetheless, Mr Peña Nieto tacitly acknowledged such qualms as he stood in a crisp white shirt in the Azteca stadium. “We are going to leave behind the old practices. This is a political project committed to democracy and freedom,” he told the roaring crowd. “Feel proud because your vote is going to change Mexico.”

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