28 April 2006

PRI, PAN candidates trade barbs in tetchy first debate

Story by : David Agren

The hype leading up to Mexico's first presidential debate on Tuesday focused on a potentially empty lectern, which Democratic Revolution Party (PRD) candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, the long-time campaign frontrunner, kept declining to stand behind. Despite being branded a coward, the self-described frontrunner and target of a spate of negative National Action Party ads declined to participate. His reason: They're all going to 'attack me.'

The debate proceeded without Lopez Obrador. Surprisingly, the PRD candidate's absence barely drew attention, spare the moderator's comments: "Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador of the Alliance for the Good of All decided not to participate," and the appearance of an empty lectern on stage.

National Action Party (PAN) candidate Felipe Calderon, who caught Lopez Obrador in the latest Grupo Reforma poll, chided his rival's absence, saying in his opening remarks, "The PRD candidate didn't appear because he doesn't have viable proposals."

Calderon and the three other presidential hopefuls, Roberto Madrazo of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), the New Alliance's Roberto Campa, and Patricia Mercado of the Social Democratic and Farmers' Alternative, outlined their economic proposals in the debate, which was at times testy, but featured little direct verbal sparring.

Each candidate entered the debate with his or her own objectives: Calderon, to establish himself as the main challenger to Lopez Obrador.

(Several recent polls put the race in a dead heat.) Madrazo, to escape third place and increasing irrelevance. Campa and Mercado, to make a name for themselves and their fledgling parties. Two candidates succeeded, although all claimed success afterwards.

Madrazo, dressed in a classic power suit with white shirt and red tie, zeroed in on Calderon from the get go. The former Tabasco governor branded Calderon, "The candidate of lost opportunities," a reference to the PAN aspirant's tenures as energy secretary and a federal diputado. In virtually every salvo, Madrazo, constantly glancing at notes but speaking firmly, opened with the impolite salutation, "Calderon." In several retorts, he disparagingly said, "Calderon, don't disguise the reality."

The PRI candidate spelled out little policy, except promises to improve Pemex through what he termed, "Modern nationalism," and simplify tramites (bureaucratic procedures) He also expressed solidarity with Mexico's sindicatos (unions that often functioned as party surrogates) and blamed the PAN government for the recent strike violence in Michoacan. Mostly, though, Madrazo attacked the PAN and mocked President Vicente Fox's oft-run TV spots, saying acerbically, "If we keep following this road, we won't even arrive in the second division."

Calderon, in comparison, looked jovial, wore a dark suit with a cheery striped tie and spoke in an upbeat, non-threatening tone. Unlike Madrazo, he often grinned. He doled out as much as he received, but in a less ominous manner. After Madrazo accused the panista of receiving an improper loan, Calderon flashed a photo of a Miami penthouse apartment supposedly owned by the PRI candidate. Calderon mainly promised a potpourri of things - not unlike the PRD campaign has been accused of doing - during his allotted time: Lower taxes, banning employment discrimination against pregnant women and opening daycare spots for working mothers.

As the only woman in the debate, Patricia Mercado advanced issues the other male-lead campaigns mostly overlooked: gay rights, access to abortion and gender issues. She summed up her views with the statement, "Inequality is more profound than poverty." The candidate also differentiated herself from the PRD and Lopez Obrador, identifying her politics with those of left-wing governments in Chile and Spain.

Mercado's new party must capture at least two percent of the vote in order to run again in future elections. A strong performance helped her cause.

Roberto Campa on the other hand looked out of place, although he made the understatement of the night, "It's difficult for a new party to win the presidency." His performance made that task even tougher. The scowling candidate spoke with a jerky cadence and gestured awkwardly. Mostly, though, he repeatedly attacked Madrazo, the man who kneecapped Elba Esther Gordillo - Campa's ally in the teachers' union - during her tenure as a PRI vice president. Most contentiously, Campa charged Madrazo with evading taxes, brandishing an SAT (revenue department) document to supposedly prove his point.

Madrazo rebuked Campa and the following day filed suit against the New Alliance candidate.

All of the candidates claimed victory after the debate. Lopez Obrador said the debate had no impact on his campaign. He later rolled out vaguely familiar conspiracy charges, alleging that two unfavorable polls released on Tuesday were just slick marketing.

Analysts were split on how Lopez Obrador's absence will impact the campaign. Most commentators in Mexico's large dailies lauded

Calderon and Mercado's performances and scorned Madrazo and Campa.

Lopez Obrador pledged to attend the second presidential debate scheduled for June 6.

From the Guadalajara Colony Reporter.

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.

20 April 2006

Opening Mexico, a review

Reviewed by David Agren

'Opening Mexico'
By Julia Preston and Samuel Dillon
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
516 pages

Young National Action Party (PAN) supporters, celebrating the country's historic vote to cast aside one-party rule at Mexico City's Angel de la Independencia on election night 2000, admonished president-elect Vicente Fox, "No nos falles" (don't let us down). Julia Preston and Samuel Dillon end their book "Opening Mexico" with an account of the scene, perhaps setting the stage for a sequel about the Fox administration, which came to power on a platform of change, but largely dashed expectations.

Their current book, however, brilliantly chronicles the long and torturous road to the point when Mexico became democratic. The book methodically highlights the key events and characters of the struggle, effectively explains the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) system of governance and offers insights into the prevalent attitudes during the decades of one-party rule. The pair filled 516 pages, making "Opening Mexico" a lengthy read, but it's perhaps appropriate, considering that Mexico's fledgling democracy came about gradually.

The book opens and ends with the 2000 election, but the authors peg 1968, the year the federal government violently quelled student protests in Tlatelolco, as their starting point. Perhaps, though, the 1985 Mexico City earthquake, which claimed more than 20,000 lives would be a more appropriate place to begin. The earthquake revealed PRI ineptness and the governing party's callous nature, but on a positive note, the disaster fomented the development of a civil society. Frustrated by a lack of government action, citizens took matters into their own hands, digging through rubble to rescue survivors, while soldiers and police officers stood idly by. Prior to 1985, the PRI system discouraged individual initiative; a top-down management style pervaded all sectors of society.

Homero Aridjis, president of Grupo de los Cien Internacional, a group of intellectuals who advance environmental issues, described the reaction to his organization: "It was a group where people participated voluntarily. The government couldn't figure that out. They couldn't understand the idea of volunteer work or disinterested civic action." (Read Alan Riding's "Distant Neighbors," for a more thorough assessment of Mexican history and society.)

Mexico's press, previously held hostage by political patrons and a government-run newsprint vendor, slowly flowered thereafter, as new newspapers - most notably Siglo 21 (the predecessor to Guadalajara's Publico) - displayed growing editorial freedom. (The pages in "Opening Mexico" describing the history of Siglo 21, which made its name with its intrepid reporting on the April 22, 1992 pipeline explosion in Guadalajara, need to be read by anyone wanting to better understand the derelict nature of Mexico's press in past years).

The earthquake also laid the groundwork for the PRI's near defeat in 1988. Cuauhtemoc Cardenas, the son of a former president, capitalized on immense dissatisfaction in the country, but due in part to a mysterious computer crash at the election headquarters, he lost to Carlos Salinas. Cardenas founded the Democratic Revolution Party (PRD) afterwards and the new entity would become the dominant force in the Federal District.

Preston and Dillon, both former New York Times correspondents in Mexico during the late 1990s, focus heavily on the regimes of Salinas and Ernesto Zedillo - in addition to Carlos Salinas' "hermano incomodo" (uncomfortable brother) Raul. (Raul Salinas, charged with murder, sent the authors letters, protesting his innocence. After a decade in prison, Raul Salinas was released - without ever being convicted. Questions about suspicious foreign bank accounts remain.)

"Opening Mexico" recounts many of the calamitous events of the 1990s, but not in the same detail as Andres Oppenheimer's "Bordering on Chaos", which effectively spelled out the details of the 1994 peso crisis, the EZLN uprising in Chiapas and the murder of Carlos Salinas' chosen successor Luis Donaldo Colosio.

The "Opening Mexico" authors cast Zedillo, the "accidental president," in a hero's role. Although imperfect, Zedillo ushered in many of the reforms necessary for Fox's victory. The former president also locked horns with PRI dinosaurs (the term for old-school party operatives). While former PRI presidents and interior ministers regularly overturned opposition victories in state elections (most notably in Chihuahua in 1986 and San Luis Potosi in 1991, events the authors devote entire chapters to), Zedillo recognized unfavorable polls against his party, instituted primary campaigns and strengthened the Federal Electoral Institute (IFE).

Most effectively though, "Opening Mexico" deftly captures the spirit of the 2000 election and recounts small details of the campaign. Fox, a former Guanajuato governor, who peppered his campaign speeches and interviews with cuss words (he once told a newswire: "I'm honest, I work like a mother------ and I'm not an asshole,") and his team turned the election into a referendum on 71 years of PRI rule. They coined the slogan: ¡Ya! (loosely translated as now, or enough). A two-letter word became a rallying cry for change.

The PRI stumbled in a fair election, depending initially on the advice of several Clinton strategists, who imported the slogan, "Power to the people," which didn’t translate well into Spanish. The PRI eventually dumped the slogan along with its attempts to rebrand itself, "The new PRI."

The Fox strategy worked; he accurately judged the public’s appetite for change. Upon hearing Fox announced the victor on election night, jubilant supporters screamed, "Arriba, Abajo, el PRI se va al carajo (the PRI’s going to hell)."

Since the book was published several years after Fox took power, the authors' epilogue is especially telling. The tone of writing describes the widespread disappointment in Fox's reign better than any of the details about things not changing.

The epilogue ends with the sentences: "Mexico had seemed the perfect dictatorship. Now it was an imperfect democracy."

The 2006 elections will test if democracy has taken root. Regardless of the outcome, Mexican democracy will continue to be a work in progress for years to come.

From the Guadalajara Colony Reporter

18 April 2006

The ubiqutous vocho falls out of favor with capital's cabbies


Many Mexico City cabbies still drive Volkswagen Beetles. The venerable cabs are gradually disappearing, however, as a city ordinance mandates that all newly-licensed taxis must have four doors.

Story by : David Agren

Martin Figueroa, a Mexico City cab driver, prowls the capital's Polanco and Zona Rosa districts in his green Volkswagen Beetle, searching for bargain-hunting passengers. On an average day the taxista (as Mexican cab drivers are known) makes 350 pesos, mostly by shuttling foreigners between their upscale hotels and the airport, although pirate taxis now pose unwelcome competition. He undercuts the prices charged by sitio taxis (vehicles assigned to stations that often use radios) because of his status as a libre (a taxi driver without a base) and his little green car, which due to regulations passed a few years ago in the Federal District, is set to go out of service within a decade.

The ubiquitous vocho (beetle) taxi, a long-time fixture on Mexico City streets, has fallen out of favor with many taxistas along with the capital's taxi regulator, which passed a regulation mandating that all new taxis must have four doors, leaving Volkswagen aficionados out of luck.

"Five years ago, it was almost 100 percent vochos," Figueroa comments, figuring that now only 30 percent of the approximately 120,000 Mexico City cabs are Volkswagens.

Nowadays taxistas mostly drive Nissan Tsurus and subcompact cars like the Hyundai Atos and tiny Chevys. The vocho stopped rolling off Volkswagen's Puebla assembly line in 2003, although the model is still fairly common on Mexican roads.

Figueroa works about 10 hours each weekday, driving a car that lacks power steering, air conditioning and a radio down the Federal Districts congested thoroughfares. As an independent operator, he makes a reasonable living. During an exceptional shift, he can earn up to 500 pesos, although, "You have to work all day to if you want to make (that)."

The taximeter in a Vocho starts at 5.60 pesos and climbs by 78 centavos every 250 meters. A ride in a newer libre taxi begins at 6.40 pesos. (Guadalajara taxi fares start at 7.74 pesos.) Sitio taxis, which often service hotels and office buildings, usually operate on a grid system, sometimes charging more than triple what a Vocho would.

Supposedly, the sitio taxis offer a more secure service, but Figueroa says licensed Vochos are usually safe too - despite their sketchy reputation.

"It's normal in a city so large that there would be problems," he comments. Both the U.S. State Department and Canadian government advise citizens not to hail taxis in Mexico City and to only climb into a cab associated with a reputable sitio. Stories of 24-hour kidnappings, where the victim is driven to a bank machine and forced to withdraw money, have become common. Virtually all vocho operators rip out their vehicles' front passenger seat, providing ample legroom for at least one occupant, but the unconventional exit route becomes a safety hazard - there's no easy escape in the event of a kidnapping.

All legal taxis, regardless of classification, sport license plates bearing the letter "L" for libre or "S" for sitio. The license number is also emblazoned across the roof and most drivers make their identifications easily available for inspection. Figueroa estimates 30,000 pirate cabs, which lack proper license plates, operate in Mexico City. Besides jeopardizing passenger safety, Figueroa says the pirate operators reduce profits for the legitimate drivers.

"There's a lot of competition," he explains.

"Unfortunately, it's reducing the number of available fares."

Still, Figueroa has no plans to give up his vocho until his taxi license expires in five years. Other Vocho drivers express similar sentiments.

Taxista Jose Antonio Castillo describes his Vocho as an "all-terrain" car.

He bought his Vocho for 70,000 pesos five years ago and insists, "It's still a good car ... it's really good on hills." The odometer has rolled over four times and now reads 419,527 kilometers.

Other taxistas show a little less affection for the vocho. Arturuo Rosas Vergara, a libre taxista, now drives a sub-compact Chevrolet painted red and white.

"It's more comfortable and uses less gasoline," he says.

As for getting behind the wheel of a vocho, he comments, "For a driver, driving it is tiring."

15 April 2006

Flag drops on two-horse race for governor

Photograph by : Farid Sanchez

Early polls give Arturo Zamora Jimenez (right) of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) an advantage over his main rival, Emilio Gonzalez Marquez of the National Action Party (PAN).

Story by : David Agren

The Jalisco governor's race officially started on April 1, pitting the former mayors of Guadalajara and Zapopan against each other. Wasting little time, both Arturo Zamora Jimenez of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) and Emilio Gonzalez Marquez of the National Action Party (PAN) commenced campaign activities at the stroke of Midnight.

In an abberation from the federal election, where Mexico's three big parties are running neck-and-neck, Jalisco's election should be a two-horse race as the left-leaning Democratic Revolution Party (PRD) seldom performs well in perhaps the country's most conservative state. Additionally, the PRI, whose scandal-plagued national campaign has been rocked by corruption allegations and high-profile defections, could recapture Jalisco, which has solidly backed the PAN since Alberto Cardenas first captured power in 1995.

Gonzalez, the former mayor of Guadalajara, launched his campaign in Colonia Ferrocarril, an impoverished Guadalajara neighborhood populated by Mixtec Indians. Zamora stumped in the Guadalajara barrio where he grew up.

Four other candidates also threw their hats in the ring: The PRD's Enrique Ibarra Pedroza, Oliva de los Angeles Ornelas Torres of the Social Democratic and Campesino Alternative, Fernando Espinoza de los Monteros of the New Alliance Party and Adalberto Velasco Antillion of the Green Party (federally, the PRI and Greens are running a joint candidate, but not in Jalisco). Jalisco residents select their new governor on July 2, the same day they elect a new president.

Early polls give Zamora an advantage. An El Informador poll pegged his support at 49 percent, six points better than Gonzalez. The PRD only garnered five percent, although, federally, PRD candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador was the choice of 23 percent of jalisciences.

The race officially started two weeks ago, but pre-election politicking began more than a year ago. Both Zamora and Gonzalez seemingly governed their respective municipalities with an eye towards capturing Jalisco's top prize. Zamora ran numerous radio and television commercials and put up billboards in his fast-growing suburb boasting of new public works projects. Controversially, he allegedly paid a Mexico City columnist to pen favorable articles. Gonzalez went as far as to put his face on notebooks given to Guadalajara's public school children. Publicity budgets in both municipalities soared.

Before seeking public office, Zamora gained fame as a high-profile defense attorney; he defended two Huichol Indians accused of murdering San Antonio Express-News journalist Phillip True.

Gonzalez is an accountant by profession, but a long-time PAN operative. The unspectacular reign of his predecessor, Jalisco Governor Francisco Ramirez Acuña, could hamper the Gonzalez campaign. Ramirez seldom speaks with the media, frequently takes foreign junkets and governs in an aloof style.

Gonzalez appeared with both PAN presidential candidate Felipe Calderon and Governor Ramirez at rallies in the Los Altos region last week. Zamora, on the other hand, failed to appear in public with embattled PRI presidential candidate Roberto Madrazo at some Jalisco campaign stops. Editorial cartoonists in Guadalajara newspapers lampooned the pair, running sketches suggesting Madrazo needs an assist from Zamora, more than the former Zapopan mayor needs a boost from the federal PRI campaign.

From the Guadalajara Colony Reporter

07 April 2006

PAN courts young voters


National Action Party candidate Felipe Calderon works the crowd at a youth rally in Tepatitlan de Morelos, Jalisco last Sunday.

Story by : David Agren

Four young breakdancers, dubbed the Beat Boys, performed to Kool & The Gang's "Get Down On It" at a National Action Party (PAN) youth rally in Tepatitlán de Morelos, Jalisco last Sunday, briefly enlivening the campaign headed by presidential hopeful Felipe Calderon - a man jaded members of the Mexican media covering the event described as lacking "charisma."

"He's a gray candidate," said El Universal reporter Sergio Javier Jimenez, using a Spanish expression for dull.

But on a campaign swing last weekend through the PAN heartland of Los Altos, a semi-arid region northeast of Guadalajara famous for tequila and ranching, Calderon scheduled a rally for young voters, an effort to claim the nearly 60 percent of Mexico's youth vote that PAN President Vicente Fox captured in the 2000 election. And while the press views Calderon as non-charismatic, he courts young voters through rallies, appearances on youth-oriented media programs and by offering an online video game that features the PAN candidate slaying dinosaurs - an unmistakable dig at old-school Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) operatives.

To the sounds of a specially-made pop track - of a somewhat more contemporary nature than Kool & The Gang - Calderon rushed into the Auditorio Morelos with less flash than the Beat Boys, although he drew a far more enthusiastic response than the pride of Lagos de Moreno, Jalisco. An especially rowdy section called out soccer chants, substituting, "Felipe," for the names of popular club teams.

Although not sporting ripped jeans, stud earrings or an "I'm too cool for you" attitude like the Beat Boys, the PAN candidate struck his own rebellious note. His campaign tour bus bears the slogan, "The disobedient son," a reference to his spats with President Fox, Calderon's upset victory over former interior minister Santiago Creel, the perceived party favorite, and the candidate's relative youth; he's just 43 years old.

The slogan fails to describe Calderon's straight-laced upbringing, though. The Harvard-educated son of an early PAN leader worked his way up through the party apparatus, serving as a federal diputado and later energy secretary. His wife previously sat in Mexico's Congress.

The PAN campaign arrived riding high in the polls - well, at least in one - which pegged support for Felipe Calderon at 36 percent, two points better than Democratic Revolution Party (PRD) candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador. The former Mexico City mayor laughed off the results, but not before attacking the poll and pollster's integrity. No one in the press entourage believed the poll either. Two subsequent polls, though, showed the race tightening.

Speaking to a young audience clad in white party T-shirts, the Michoacan native passed over talking about the poll, although his campaign team passed out flyers highlighting the PAN's sudden surge. Likewise, he said little about the PAN's current bogeyman, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, a leader some Mexicans accuse of secretly backing Lopez Obrador. Some attendees, however, spouted off on both Lopez Obrador and Chavez.

"Peje (Lopez Obrador) ... wants to turn Mexico into a socialist/communist country like his allies Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez," said Oscar Hernandez Zamora, 24, a Universidad de Guadalajara student.

Without mentioning the names of the other candidates, Calderon rebuked the PRD and PRI platforms, saying, "The world's changing and Mexico has to as well, in order to stay competitive."

Virtually everyone in the audience, waving PAN branded flags with the slogan, "Felipe Calderon, so we live better," reacted positively to the statement, or at least politely applauded - especially Jesus de Jose Galavis Ramirez, a business student at UNAM in Mexico City.

"We don't want a country like it was prior to 2000."

Calderon, wearing a blue shirt with a PAN logo and dress slacks, spoke like a teacher, delivering a brief history lesson on "a past you don't know very well.

"You have two choices: The past or the future," he said.

"The past represents PRI corruption."

He spelled out a grim tale of graft and misdeeds, starting with the bloody and inglorious reign of former president Luis Echevarria followed by the economic mismanagement of former president Jose Lopez Portillo, infamous for his spur-of-the-moment bank nationalization, and finally - every non-PRI politician's favorite whipping boy - former president Carlos Salinas, who left office on the eve of Mexico's last peso crash.

The audience - perhaps barely old enough to remember Salinas' administration - lustily booed the former president's name.

A wise-cracking motorist, passing by the Auditorio Morelos, showing a widely-held disdain for the entire political process, chortled: "La gente le pasa por una torta" (the people are lining up for a sandwich)," a reference to the PRI tradition of luring potential voters to rallies with promises of sandwiches and soft drinks before escorting the beneficiaries to polling stations. The practice continues in parts of Mexico. The PRD has resorted to similar, if somewhat less nefarious, methods too. Teachers at the Universidad de Guadalajara (a PRD hotbed) have dismissed classes early so students could attend Lopez Obrador rallies in the Guadalajara area and Ciudad Guzman.

Talk of giveaways riled some panistas, who said their party eschews such behavior.

"No one was herded in here," Jose de Jesus Galavis Ramirez said.

"We want people to come voluntarily."

Calderon promised less than his leftwing rival - PAN supporters regularly mock Lopez Obrador for pledging to lower the prices of gasoline and electricity. The panista, though, made a few pledges in Tepatitlan - all targeted at issues of importance to young voters, like offering businesses hiring people under age 28 a one-year vacation from IMSS payments and providing more money for jobs and education. He even promised - like Lopez Obrador - to clean up Lake Chapala.

Mostly, though, he spoke of change, not unlike President Fox, who raised expectations for a gobierno de cambio (government of change), but failed to completely deliver due to poor political management and opposition from intransigent PRI and PRD lawmakers.

The rally ended with a lunch of carnitas washed down with complimentary tequila coolers. A 12-piece mariachi band in wine-colored costumes entertained until Calderon took the stage. He delivered a stirring, but off-key rendition of "Sangre Caliente (Hot Blood)," a tale of anger and revenge, perfect for a bravado-spewing politician hitting the warpath. Based on audience reaction, it made him temporarily cooler, or at least more bad - in a cool way - than the Beat Boys.

From the Guadalajara Colony Reporter, April 8, 2006.