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