Fox gives the big finger to Mexican establishment

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The Mexican presidential candidate Francisco Labastida, who had been leading opinion polls and until this week was widely tipped to win the 2 July election, has hinted at what once was unthinkable. After 71 uninterrupted years in power, longer than any other ruling government, there is a possibility that his Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) could lose.

"But I am working on it," he said in a rasping voice to a thousand university students on Thursday. More than in any previous election, the politics of personality will determine who governs Mexico for the next six years. With barely two months before the vote, the campaign in Mexico is getting dirty.

Mr Labastida appears to have been outmanoeuvred, at least temporarily, by the main opposition candidate in a televised debate last Tuesday. Vicente Fox, from the centre-right National Action Party, seemed to be the most statesmanlike among the six contenders in identical black suits, and his ratings soared afterwards. Government supporters said those figures were skewed because rural voters without access to telephones are the traditional stronghold of the establishment.

Few viewers expected much from the political broadcast, given its stilted format of monologues with no chance of actual debate, but the former Coca-Cola executive and ex-governor of Guanajuato state rose to the occasion when Mr Labastida accused him of vulgar tactics. "He calls me Shorty and Nancy Boy," whined Mr Labastida, still the front-runner by 3 percentage points at the outset of the broadcast. With a clenched jaw, he recited all the adjectives with homosexual connotations which Mr Fox had used against him. "He doesn't offend me, he offends Mexican families with these words," Mr Labastida complained.

Mr Fox, a plain-talking politician who is known for always wearing cowboy boots, had mocked one of the governing party's signs early on in the campaign. He had replaced the PRI's oversized pointing index finger with an uplifted middle finger - to much amusement. "I may be naughty," he intoned, leaning over the podium. "You can take the rudeness out of me. But you will never be able to shake the reputation for the scheming, bad and corrupt leaders that you are.''

Political analysts said Mr Labastida erred by calling attention to Mr Fox's invective and made himself look vulnerable. All five opposition candidates pointed to the PRI's long legacy of corruption and questioned Mr Labastida's call for change.

"Labastida repeated in front of millions of viewers the epithets which Fox used to ridicule him. These question his personality, character and manliness and Labastida should not have repeated them," wrote Sergio Aguayo, a political columnist in the Mexico City daily La Reforma.

At a breakfast meeting with foreign correspondents on Friday, Mr Labastida confounded critics by committing himself to take part in a new debate next month. "I will concentrate more on proposals," Mr Labastida vowed. He questioned Mr Fox's record as governor of Guanajuato for five years, and said that poverty was widespread despite all the foreign investment and job creation schemes which the National Action Party promoted in the central agricultural state.

The PRI candidate also warned against Mr Fox's economic plans. Rises in public spending could plunge Mexico into another currency crisis, an echo of the 1994 peso crash that sent Mexico into recession, he said.