MEXICO CITY – Democracy has been good to Mexico. It shows in shiny new cars bought with low-interest loans, government-subsidized housing projects stacked like dominoes along hillsides, and a raucous political system in which everyone has a voice.
Gone are the rigged elections, the rubber-stamp Congress, the boom-and-bust peso crises. Over the past decade, Mexico's political evolution has broken up monopolies, made politicians more responsive to their public and attracted foreign investors ranging from Citibank to Krispy Kreme doughnuts.
The new era was ushered in by President Vicente Fox's historic 2000 election, the most democratic in Mexican history. Six years later, as he prepares to step down, he promises the election of his successor on Sunday will be freer and cleaner still.
But democracy has had its dark side, too — congressional chaos that stalled needed reforms and left a nation full of disgruntled voters, some of whom are nostalgic for the old authoritarian system that at least got things done.
In the final week of campaigning — amid the attack ads, high-octane rhetoric and streets blitzed with election banners — voters are torn evenly between Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, a leftist who offers himself as a savior of the poor; and Felipe Calderon, a conservative who trusts the markets to keep living standards rising. Polls published Friday showed the two about even.
The vote will determine whether Mexico latches onto South America's leftward trend, or deepens free-market reforms and its already close alliance with the United States. Whoever wins will have to work hard to get the undivided attention of a U.S. president largely preoccupied with Iraq, and then, two years later, start afresh with a new administration in Washington.
Most voters have been following the World Cup soccer tournament closer than the campaign. By now, Mexicans have experienced enough democracy and heard enough politicians' promises to be a bit blase about them.
Six years ago, national euphoria greeted Fox's victory, which dealt a sudden, surprising end to 71 years of rule by the iron-fisted Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI. Mexicans believed anything was possible. Many waited for the country to finally trade its riches — oil and mineral reserves, miles of breathtaking coastline, an underused workforce — for full membership among First World nations.
Reality has disappointed them. The economy is stable, thanks to a strong central bank and Mexico's integration into the world economy, but Fox failed to create the millions of jobs he promised and wages are still too low — minimum wage is 47.05 pesos ($4) a day — for many to live on.
But Fox's time is up. Constitutionally barred from seeking re-election, he plans to retire to his ranch in central Mexico after his replacement is inaugurated on Dec. 1.
Enter Calderon of Fox's National Action Party and Lopez Obrador of the Democratic Revolution Party, polar opposites waging a no-holds-barred battle with charges of influence-peddling and stealing government funds for their campaigns.
Calderon says Lopez Obrador would be dangerous for Mexico and likens him to Venezuela's populist, anti-American President Hugo Chavez.
Lopez Obrador says Calderon, a bespectacled career politician who served as Fox's energy secretary, represents more of the same ineffective bureaucracy that caters to the rich.
A poll published by Reforma newspaper on Friday, the last day on which polls may be legally published, gave Lopez Obrador 36 percent, Calderon 34 percent and Roberto Madrazo of the PRI, 25 percent. Twelve percent were undecided. The poll questioned 2,100 people between June 17-19 and had a margin of error of 2.5 percentage points. Other polls Friday gave roughly similar results.
With the campaign slogan "Smile: We're going to win," Lopez Obrador, who gained popularity as Mexico City mayor, has crisscrossed the country, adorned with flowers and basking in the adulation of thousands of supporters.
Calderon has switched modes from stiff to commanding yet easygoing, greeted by supporters who raise both arms in the air connoting his "clean hands" slogan.
Some fear violence if there isn't a clear winner, as happened in 1994 after Lopez Obrador narrowly lost the governor's seat of his native state, Tabasco, to Madrazo. Lopez Obrador refused to accept the results and began governing from the streets, undermining Madrazo's already weak government.
Lopez Obrador, 52, is quick to blame his losses on secretive plots by unnamed dark forces, and to fight back unconventionally. As mayor a year ago, when a legal dispute threatened to keep him from running for the presidency, he mobilized millions to protest and refused to accept a court order to stop construction of a road.
He won. Under intense public pressure, the Fox administration dropped the case.
The folksy early riser is famous for holding predawn news conferences in a city where government workers often don't straggle in until midday. George Grayson, a Mexico expert at the College of William & Mary in Virginia, says the recently widowed Lopez Obrador is a sort of everyman for Mexico.
"He doesn't just represent the masses, he incarnates their struggle," he said. "Just as they have to fight for every inch they gain, he is there fighting. So he is their champion."
Many among Mexico's elite worry that Lopez Obrador would bankrupt the nation with his extravagant pension and public works proposals. Enrique Krauze, one of Mexico's foremost historians, goes further, alleging the candidate has a streak of authoritarianism rooted in Tabasco's take-no-prisoners politics.
"What is worrisome about Lopez Obrador is Lopez Obrador himself," Krauze wrote in his magazine, Letras Libres. "He does not represent a modern left ... He represents an authoritarian left."
Others, however, say the danger is imaginary and that comparisons to Chavez are overblown, noting Lopez Obrador has moved closer to the center since launching his campaign. They liken him to Brazil's fiery union leader Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva. Investors feared Silva would default on Brazil's foreign debt and plunge the nation into an economic meltdown, but he instead embraced conservative economic policies that pleased Wall Street and stoked a strong comeback for Latin America's largest economy.
One thing seems certain. While some voters may miss the PRI's can-do ways, Mexico doesn't appear ready to give the party a second chance.
Some wonder whether it will even survive the election as a national force. Founded in 1929 to unite the country after Mexico's revolution, the PRI ruled by accepting all ideologies. It catered to unions, the rich, the poor — anyone who would support it. Its platform was simple: maintaining power.
Now, with a strong, three-party system, the PRI seems lost. Some of its top officials have snubbed their own leader, Madrazo, for Calderon or Lopez Obrador.
Whoever wins faces a daunting challenge. Mexico, Latin America's second-most populated country with 105 million people, is still caught between Third and First Worlds. Peasants in remote mountain villages survive on less than $1 a day while steel-and-glass office buildings rise like monuments to capitalism along Mexico City's famous Reforma Avenue.
Unemployment and low wages continue to drive millions north to the U.S. in search of work, the money they send home comprising Mexico's biggest foreign earner after oil. So when the subject of Mexico-U.S. relations comes up, Mexicans focus on anger over the American effort to stem the flow, not the inrush of American dollars or Mexico's $214 billion a year in exports, a nearly four-fold jump since it joined the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1994.
The gap between rich and poor is still vast. The most desperate seek spare change washing car windows at stoplights and even middle-class wages haven't risen much. Yahoo Inc. recently offered customer service positions, seeking computer-savvy English-speakers with college degrees. Gross salary: 4,500 pesos ($400) a month.
Kidnaps for ransom and drug violence remain a huge drag on the economy, relations with the U.S. and the state of mind of Mexicans. Many gangs battle for control of the lucrative trade routes to the United States and Mexico's police desperately need reform, but few expect the new Congress also being elected Sunday to get it done.
No party is likely to get a majority in Congress, and alliances are even less probable, so Mexico's new leader will likely face the same legislative paralysis as Fox did.
Monique Reynaud is a 46-year-old buyer for Wal-Mart and an avid Lopez Obrador supporter. To her, the election is about encouraging a new breed of voter, one who won't accept corrupt or ineffective leadership.
"Mexicans are very hardworking, very nice. But the people in power just crush you," Reynaud said. "We shouldn't be cowards. We have to take a risk. And if the leaders don't do their jobs, we have to say: 'We will kick you out with our vote."'