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Felipe Calderón, the business-friendly candidate in Mexico’s presidential elections, is on course for victory, according to an influential poll on Monday.
The poll, published in the daily newspaper El Universal, places Mr Calderón of the centre-right National Action party in first place for the first time since the campaign began in January with 39 points.
He now leads the leftwing candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador, of the Democratic Revolution party (PRD), by four points.
The poll also suggests that the main fight leading up to the July 2 vote will now be between these two. Roberto Madrazo of the Institutional Revolutionary party (PRI), who has been stuck in third place on about 25 per cent since January, now trails even further with just 21 points.
The latest results confirm a trend that the country’s leading polls began to reflect last month, and are little short of a miracle given that Mr López Obrador led Mr Calderon by 10 points just two months ago.
The speed of the turn-round – as well as the size of the shift – has taken almost all of the country’s political analysts by surprise as they search for suitable theories to explain the electorate’s behaviour.
El Universal argues that Mr Calderon’s rapid improvement stems mainly from a huge shift in the preferences of “independent voters” – Mexicans who do not identify clearly with any particular party.
These account for almost half the total number of voters, according to the poll, and 28 per cent of them say they intend to support Mr Calderón, against 27 per cent for Mr López Obrador. Two months ago, by contrast, 40 per cent of independent voters said they would support the leftwing candidate while only 22 per cent said they would back Mr Calderón.
Vicente Licona at Indemerc-Harris, a polling company in Mexico City, believes that the huge swing is the result of a combination of factors rather than one specific event.
Among them, he says, is a highly effective “negative campaign” by the National Action party against Mr López Obrador; his decision not to participate in a televised debate among the leading candidates in late April; and a public outburst in which he told President Vicente Fox to “shut up”.
Mr Licona said: “The president’s approval ratings are still very high and attacking the institution of the presidency is not something that goes down well in a country like Mexico.”
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