Mexican centre-right candidate takes pole position

Three months of fierce campaigning has this week produced a near miracle in Mexico’s presidential elections.

Centre-right candidate Felipe Calderón has pushed ahead of his leftwing rival Andrés Manuel López Obrador for the first time, according to a batch of leading polls.

One of the surveys, produced by consultancy GEA, even put the National Action Party (PAN) candidate 10 points clear of Mr López Obrador, who is running on the Democratic Revolution Party (PRD) ballot.

Mr Calderón’s sudden surge in the polls has delighted the country’s business classes, which see him as the best hope for continuing the economic stability that has consolidated under the present administration of Vicente Fox.

Investors expressed their joy at the turnround via a new high for the country’s stock exchange index and the strongest peso against the dollar since the beginning of April.

The business community has warmed to Mr Calderón’s proposals of fiscal reform – he has proposed a flat tax; labour reform to ease the burden for employers taking on new staff; and opening up the heavily protected energy sector to allow Pemex, the state oil monopoly, to associate freely with private companies, which Mexico’s constitution currently forbids.

At the same time, business was worried by Mr López Obrador’s sometimes hostile approach to the private sector, his attack on Guillermo Ortiz, the much-respected central bank governor, and his insistence on the need to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement with Canada and the US.

Mr López Obrador’s decision not to participate in a live, televised debate at the end of last month was taken by many as yet further evidence of what they perceived as the his disdain for authority and transparent, democratic politics.

But some analysts question whether Mr Calderón’s momentum will last. Dan Lund at Mund Américas, a political consultancy and polling company in Mexico City, does not think so.

First, he says, both the GEA poll and a poll in daily newspaper Reforma last week giving him a seven-point lead lack credibility. “They stretch the imagination and are designed principally to please donors,” he says.

Second, much of Mr Calderón’s campaign is based on mass advertising, which voters in Mexico typically start rejecting the longer it goes on.

Third, much of the 25 per cent or so commanded by Roberto Madrazo, candidate for the Revolutionary Institutional Party (PRI), will start to migrate as it becomes clearer that he has no chance of winning. Mr Lund says migration is almost certain to favour Mr López Obrador rather than Mr Calderón – not least because Mr López Obrador used to be a member of the PRI and many party supporters see him as “a first cousin”.

Others are not so sure. They see only that Mr Calderón’s negative campaigning has proved highly effective and has had a marked impact on the country’s swing voters.

Most pollsters say that as much as half the Mexican electorate falls into this category, making it by far the most critical group in the July 2 election. According to the Reforma poll, for example, 42 per cent of this group now intends to vote for Mr Calderón against just 36 per cent for Mr López Obrador. A month ago the PRD candidate held 38 per cent against Mr Calderón’s 37 per cent.

All that has thrown the election wide open and, while not even the bravest political analysts are yet willing to call Mr Calderón the winner, it is clear that Mexico’s business leaders have a new reason to smile.

Nobody has summed up the unexpected turn-around as succinctly as Mr Calderón himself. “They said that I was dead. Well, what do you know? The dead man has risen,” he said at the weekend.

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