22 April 2006

Presidential campaign takes a negative turn

Story by : David Agren

Recent National Action Party (PAN) ads crudely brand longtime presidential frontrunner Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador of the Democratic Revolution Party (PRD), "A danger for Mexico." Another spot shows a grainy video from 2004 of a former Lopez Obrador associate accepting a large bribe - so much money that bills spilled out of the briefcase. Most contentiously for the PRD, one of the spots associated the left-leaning PRD's candidate with firebrand Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.

The tenor of the PAN candidate Felipe Calderon's campaign turned negative over the past month as the right-leaning party launched a series of attack ads, an unseemly staple of politics in Canada and the United States. In Mexico, however, the long-ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) employed all the dirty tricks - or at a minimum, had its union and media surrogates torpedo political opponents - until it began losing its grip on power in the 1990s. But in a wide-open three-way race for Los Pinos (the President's residence), the PAN resorted to what the PRD dubbed, "A dirty war." The impact of going negative is uncertain, as the PAN pioneers a new - and risky - campaign strategy.

"It's not a tried and true mechanism," said Dan Lund, president of Mund Americas, a Mexico City consulting firm, adding that Mexico is only ending its first decade of running competitive elections.

The Federal Electoral Institute (IFE) stepped in last Wednesday, ordering the PAN to withdraw two phrases from the ads, one which referred to Lopez Obrador as a danger for Mexico and the other that blamed the PRD presidential aspirant for allowing a bribery scandal to occur.

Virtually every opinion poll taken over the past month shows the presidential race tightening and Lopez Obrador losing some support, but no one knows for sure if the PAN attacks are paying dividends. Some pollsters and analysts, though, said Lopez Obrador hastened his own decline.

Roy Campos of Consulta Mitofsky, a Mexican polling firm, opined that Lopez Obrador repeatedly hurling the insult, "Callese chachalaca," towards President Vicente Fox hurt the PRD campaign. (Callese means shut up in Spanish and a chachalaca is a noisy bird.)

Lund agreed, explaining that Lopez Obrador has successfully criticized President Fox over the past five years - most notably while serving as mayor of Mexico City - but avoided disparaging the presidency.

"He kind of crossed the line," Lund said. "It was a self-inflicted wound and it might have made the negative campaigning relatively effective in this period."

Despite complaining bitterly about the PAN attacks, the Lopez Obrador campaign failed to respond in kind. Political parties in Canada and the United States often launch equally vicious counterattacks when under fire, drawing on large campaign war chests.

Lund attributed Lopez Obrador's quiet response to the fact that, "The PRD doesn't have the money. It never has."

Author Elena Poniatowska - along several other intellectuals - jumped to Lopez Obrador's defense, but she later found herself on the receiving end of PAN barbs. Lund called attacking Poniatowska a mistake, pointing out, "(The PAN) united the lukewarm intellectual left of Mexico City behind Lopez Obrador - something he hasn't been able to do on his own."

In spite of immense criticism, the PAN refused to withdraw the attack ads citing the party's right to "freedom of expression." Cesar Nava, a senior PAN official, downplayed the IFE decision. In a press release, he said, "The IFE decision isn't really going have a big impact on our campaign because people now know that Lopez Obrador is dangerous."

Although no solid proof of Venezuela interfering in Mexico's election has ever surfaced, the PAN made no apologies for linking Lopez Obrador with Hugo Chavez, a populist leader who has refused to abate a low-level feud with Fox. The South American country has accused the PAN, PRI and the Mexican media of running a smear campaign.

The PAN, and not the Calderon campaign, purchased the attack ads, something Lund viewed as a sign of possible disorder in the governing party and the Calderon camp.

"They don't have a united campaign," he observed. "They have the president, who's uncontrollable and unaccountable. They have their own party, which is far, far to the right of Calderon and they have Calderon ... and he doesn't have control of his campaign nor his party."

Lund speculated the PAN drew its ideas for a negative campaign from U.S. political consultant Dick Morris, who advised the PAN and Fox in the last presidential election. Morris recently penned a column critical of Lopez Obrador for the New York Post, which ran under the headline: "Menace in Mexico." Fox indulged in some negativity during his successful run in 2000, but Lund said the campaign was introducing a new candidate and new concepts. This time around the long-term results could be harmful.

"Negative campaigning can be survived by a strong democracy with a rich political culture," he said. "But I don't think newly-emerging formal democracies can take much of that. It becomes an overdose of bad news."

From the Guadalajara Colony Reporter.

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