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MEXICO CITY – Mexicans fed up with corruption and violence say their country is poised for a historic transformation in Sunday's presidential election, while others fear the vote will bring a freefall into populism and autocratic rule.
The lightning rod for such divergent opinions is front-runner Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, the once-fiery leftist who has moderated his rhetoric and sought alliances across the political spectrum after two unsuccessful presidential runs and having led massive protests alleging electoral fraud.
Despite his new image, the 64-year-old candidate universally called AMLO still appears to trust more in his own sense of mission than in the rules of modern economics and still vows to wrest control of the country back from the "mafia of power" that he has railed against for decades.
Such is the level of discontent with Mexico's political status quo, historically high homicide rates and rampant corruption that even his rivals are trying to convince voters that they represent "real change," while simultaneously warning that a Lopez Obrador win would herald a Venezuela-like era of economic collapse and authoritarian rule.
"What people have set as the priority in this election is no more of the same," said economics graduate Rogelio Salgado, 30, who plans to vote for Lopez Obrador. "The point is to vote them all out of office, without exception."
Salgado runs down the failures attributed to the outgoing government of President Enrique Pena Nieto — low economic growth, murderous gangs and a nonfunctional legal system. "Who wants a continuation of this? People are fed up," he says.
Lopez Obrador holds a lead of 20 points or more in most polls. But No. 2 Ricardo Anaya — a tech-savvy young conservative politician running for a right-left coalition — hopes people who fear Lopez Obrador will flock to him.
Some will, like Alfonso Ulloa, 33, a natural gas specialist at a government energy agency. Ulloa has worked on Mexico's effort to open its state-owned energy sector, including projects to import cheap natural gas from the United States, and fears Lopez Obrador may cancel such economically important projects.
"I am going to vote for whoever is in second place, to take a bit of strength away from him," Ulloa says of Lopez Obrador. "The important thing is keeping the economy running, and I am afraid Lopez Obrador will screw it up."
Running third for the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party is Jose Antonio Meade, who promises a steady hand and experience. That counts for something in a country that faces constant, unpredictable challenges from U.S. President Donald Trump. Meade is also counting on the well-oiled, get-out-the-vote machine of the nearly 90-year-old party, which has spent a total of 77 years in power.
But it is corruption that has defined the debate so far.
Lopez Obrador rails against what he calls an unholy alliance of business leaders with corrupt politicians that has bled Mexico and promises to sunder that relationship in a historic national transformation, just as President Benito Juarez broke up the Roman Catholic Church's hold over the country's economy in the 1850s.
"We are going to end corruption," Lopez Obrador told a cheering crowd last week on the outskirts of Mexico City. "For the good of all, the poor come first."
Anaya goes further, saying he has been directly attacked by the government, which leaked details of a money-laundering investigation against him, and has promised to bring Pena Nieto to justice.
"Do you know why Pena Nieto's regime has attacked us?" Anaya asked a crowd in Mexico City. "It's because they fear us, and rightly so, because when I am president of Mexico there will be a special prosecutor who will investigate Enrique Pena Nieto and his participation in corruption scandals."
The split is important: Since Mexico's first democratic transition in 2000, Anaya's conservative National Action Party has governed hand-in-glove with the Institutional Revolutionary Party, voting through market-oriented economic reforms.
Lopez Obrador railed against the two parties' alliance in both of his previous runs for the presidency, and he paints them as the same thing.
Now, on his third run, Lopez Obrador's time seems to have come. The market-oriented economic policy has provided annual growth of only about 1.3 percent, and Mexicans were outraged when first lady Angelica Rivera was caught buying a mansion from a favored government contractor.
So big is Lopez Obrador's lead in the polls that much of the attention is focusing on whether his relatively new Morena party can gain a majority in Congress.
Once angry, Lopez Obrador has become more playful. When opponents accused him of benefiting from Russian meddling in the campaign, he dubbed himself "Andres Manuelovich" and shot a video near the sea, saying he was waiting for the Russians to deliver him gold.
He has pledged a "radical transformation," but at least according to his chief adviser, businessman Alfonso Romo, his economic policy would be pretty restrained.
"We don't want deficits, we don't want new debt," said Romo. "I think we are in the right position, in the middle."
While separations by U.S. officials of child migrants from their parents has grabbed headlines recently, immigration hasn't figured as an issue in Mexico's election. All three major candidates share a commitment to defending Mexican migrants in the U.S., despite the very limited means at their disposal to do so.
Perhaps Mexico's most immediate problem is violence. The country's homicide rate could be on track to reach almost 25 per 100,000 inhabitants by the end of this year, and none of the candidates have made any credible or specific proposals on how to reform the police or improve law enforcement.
The proposals have ranged from the bizarre — independent candidate Jaime Rodriguez wants to cut off the hands of public servants who steal — to the maddeningly vague: Lopez Obrador floated the idea of an "amnesty" that advisers say may just mean plea bargains or pardons for farmers who grew opium poppies or marijuana.
"They have to do something about the crime situation. We are fed up," said marketing worker Joselin Valle, 31. Valle hasn't decided who to vote for, but one thing she is sure about: "The proposals (on crime) don't make sense."
Finally, all three top candidates disagree about who can best handle Trump, a man widely hated in Mexico.
Anaya touts his language skills and tech savvy. Meade relies on his extensive government experience, but has suffered from the current government's attempts to cozy up to Trump.
Lopez Obrador says he doesn't want a fight with the United States, but some worry that one fiery populist may not be the best person to deal with another voluble populist.
Romo discounts the latter fear: "There is a saying that two bees don't sting each other."