24 May 2006

Candid, leftish maverick wins debate, emphasizes rights, eschews populism

Story by : David Agren

Shortly after Mexico’s first presidential debate commenced, Patricia Mercado Castro, candidate for the Alternative Social Democratic and Farmers’ Party (Alternativa), broached several taboo subjects in Mexican politics and society: abortion, gay rights and human rights. The other three candidates sharing the stage with her – all of them male – steered clear of the contentious topics, instead preferring to disparage each other and make grandiose promises.

Mercado’s strategy of highlighting her maverick agenda instead of trading verbal barbs paid off. She entered last month’s showdown as a little-known also-ran, more famous for feuding with Dr. Simi – discount drug baron Victor Gonzalez Torres, a man who promised to bring an enormous campaign war chest to the fledgling Alternativa – than her political agenda. She left as one of the victors and, according to several analysts, in a position to play the spoiler role in the July 2 election.

“I think the true winner of the debate was Patricia Mercado,” said Ana Maria Salazar, a Mexico City-based commentator, who also hosts an English-language radio program.

“People had a chance to see her as a presidential candidate and not this crazy woman trying to get attention from the press.”

The latest Grupo Reforma poll pegged support for her campaign at 3.7 percent – enough potential votes to ensure her party remains eligible to contest another election. (Mexican political parties must receive two percent of the vote to stay registered).

Mercado acknowledged the debate changed perceptions and raised her profile.

“Millions of people now know me,” she said in an interview with The REPORTER.

After the debate, people began telling her: “I wasn’t going to vote for anyone, but now I’m going to vote for you.”

It’s the kind of voter Mercado pursues: an independent person, lacking affiliations with any political party or union, who expresses disenchantment with the electoral process.

“What the polls show is that many people have already decided, but the majority ... have decided not to vote,” she explained.

Adding to her independent credentials: Mercado has never been a part of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), although she said jokingly when answering a question about corruption, “I think there’s an inner priista in all of us.”

Mercado goes searching for open-minded voters in an eclectic array of locations. Mere days after President Vicente Fox vetoed a bill that would have legalized the possession of small quantities of drugs, she attended a pro-marijuana rally in Mexico City’s trendy La Condesa neighborhood – an event her government -supplied security team didn’t want to enter.

Late last month, an overflow crowd in Guadalajara, perhaps Mexico’s most conservative city, jammed a small theatre at ITESM, an elite private university, to hear her speak – far more than originally expected. Most of the students posing questions complimented her debate performance. Others expressed admiration for her decision to challenge for the presidency as the election’s only female candidate.

True to her tactics in the debate, Mercado kept speaking of the same contentious themes, even though she acknowledged, “The masses aren’t going to come out and support me.”

Her candid approach, though, often wins respect.

“Above all, people ask for sincerity ... that you believe what you say,” she commented.

Even if it means patiently explaining in a television interview after the Guadalajara event why rape victims should have access to abortion.

Although running on the political left, Mercado clarifies the differences between herself and the Democratic Revolution Party (PRD) Mexico’s dominant center-left party. While critics tag PRD candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador with the populist label and compare him to Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez, Mercado associates herself with social-democratic regimes in Chile and Spain, which emphasize rights and eschew populism and nationalism.

“(The PRD’s) politics are: I’ll give money to old folks, I’ll give money to other groups,” she said, referencing Lopez Obrador’s program of giving monthly stipends to seniors, something he initiated while serving as Mexico City mayor.

“They’re forming clientelas,” she added, referring to the old PRI practice of establishing constituencies dependent on party favors.

“It’s building dependency.”

Her spot on the political spectrum could pose problems for the PRD.

“The worst thing for the left in Mexico would be if she renounces PRD candidate [Andres Manuel] Lopez Obrador,” said Andres Valdez, a political observer at the University of Guadalajara.

Salazar agreed, explaining, “Her impact is mainly going to be on who she takes votes away from and probably she’s going to be taking votes away from Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador.

“What she represents ... is another face of the Mexican left.”

A longtime champion of women’s issues, Mercado speaks of topics the PRD avoids. Lopez Obrador, who often stumps for votes in poor, traditional pueblos, seldom raises controversial social issues like abortion and gay rights. He instead speaks about jobs, social programs and fighting neo-liberal agendas – in addition to frequently denouncing el complot (conspiracies) against his previously high-flying campaign.

“(Lopez Obrador) is afraid – and I think he’s right – that it would take votes away,” Salazar commented.

The PRD campaign has shed support according to recently-published polls, but the votes appear to be shifting to the conservative National Action Party (PAN) instead of Mercado’s Alternativa party.

Although hovering around four percent in the polls, Mercado gave a one-word answer when asked about her ultimate goal: “Winning.”

From the Guadalajara Reporter


Anonymous said...

Although I think women should participate more in our political system, and I am happy to see them taking political positions more and more, I believe the whole candidacy of Patricia is a big fallacy, why: First, she and her new political party will add to the fragmentation and confusion of the left, in the worst european tradition where in each country there are too many leftists political parties, take Spain, there are over 20 nationally, but if you count them all, you will never finish. Secondly, if she considers herself a leftist, whatever denomination, she could have easily joined the PRD, the biggest and most representative leftist political party in our country, by creating her own organization she is costing us more financially and she is further fragmenting the left.
Third: We already have a political party, PRD, that supports the legalization of abortion and gives aways preservatives in the streets, supports gay marriage and and champions the privileges of the intellectuals, just look at Monsivais, AMLO and Carlos Slim even built him a complete museum to his name! not to mention Elenita and others.
And finally, I believe her performance in the debate was really patetical, specially when she said that women expecting a child who could not get a job because of their condition should be able to abort! Incredible! When what we need to change in this case is the discrimation and labor laws! That was completely ingnorant and made feel sick to see how far these radical minded people are willing to go. Notice please that I am not anti-abortion, I believe abortion is a right a woman has, but why sacrifice a child to get a job? Why not change the labor law so that the employer or the government or both are obligated to provide healthcare and wellfare in this particular cases?
And on the other hand, some people have tried to hide the fact that AMLO made a mistake by not going to the debate, and so they try to give undue credit to this lady in an effort to minimize the fact that Calderon came out a winner in this debate, if there was ever one, and that he gain popularity, by the way, some of those people who claimed that there wasn´t a real debate, are also the same who said that Patricia was the winner of the debate, Now that´s an incredible rationale, isn´t it?

David Agren said...

Patricia Mercado's party needs two percent of the vote to stay registered. After her debate performance, that's probably going to happen. She obviously failed to outline a complete agenda of what she would do if elected president - but that's not going to happen. She did however highlight strong differences between herself and Lopez Obrador. Namely: the PRD unsettles some left-leaning voters due to the large influx of priistas and its use of old-school PRI tactics. One Mercado supporter told me, "The PRD is like a garbage can for failed PRI politicians." He sited the PRD's gubernatorial candidate in Jalisco as proof. The comments echo subcomandante Marcos' remarks on the topic.

The PRD has been accused of not representing a modern left. Mercado, in the absence of Lopez Obrador, put herself in that spot. That's a potential problem for the PRD. In the long run, though, Lopez Obrador has time to bounce back and Mercado could fade. She - and the PAN campaign - may have peaked too soon. Lopez Obrador is if nothing else a survivor.

Theslowlane Robert Ashworth said...

I first learned about Patricia Mercado's refreshing candidacy on National Public Radio's Day To Day program June 1.

I would guess that Mexico needs voices for gay rights and more liberal attitudes toward things like family planning. Mexico has a high birth rate leading to population growth. Up here in USA, many folks are worried about the large number of immigrants coming to this country. Our immigration issue relates to population growth in Mexico.

It seems ironic that conservatives in our Congress are not friendly toward family planning or gay issues yet they are alarmed about the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants from Mexico. Maybe if we did a better job supporting alternatives to procreation in both Mexico and the US there wouldn't be as much population growth.

Environmentalists worry that both countries are running out of open space, fresh water resources and so forth.

We all could use some fresh new thinking on these issues.