Mexican 'Reagan' spurs hope for change

Jan McGirk meets the anti-corruption presidential candidate - machismo on horseback, wooing women voters
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The Independent US

Sitting high in the saddle, Vicente Fox takes a call on his mobile phone and calms his skittish horse while he talks strategy with distant aides. The candidate from the right-wing PAN (National Action Party) attempts to keep Mondays free to relax on his ranch, far from the campaign trail. But with only 11 weeks left before Mexico's presidential election, the conservative challenger finds it hard to take time off.

Mr Fox is determined to grab the reins from the authoritarian PRI (Partido Revolucionario Institucional), which has ruled Mexico for 71 years. He is the first serious contender to take them on. Already he is polling 40 percent in a three-way race for office, pitted against the PRI's Francisco Labastida and leftist Cuauhtemoc Cardenas.

If Mr Fox cannot muster the 51 per cent he needs to win, he is open to negotiating an unprecedented coalition - but only if he gets to call the shots.

Ironically, in macho Mexico, women voters may be the deciding factor in this election. Under the PRI, many women have felt vulnerable to the violence that has rocked their communities as drug traffickers trade, and launder money, with impunity.

Wooing these disaffected women is a high priority for Mr Fox, a divorced father of four who looks like a cross between the Marlboro Man and a paunchy Clark Gable. The former Coca-Cola executive has been campaigning for two and a half years, longer than any other candidate, and his message cuts to the quick.

"We must get rid of the biggest monopoly in Mexico, the PRI dictatorship," he says in his mellow baritone. "We need ethical values, not those of crooks. The government is part of the corruption. There is no democracy here. No justice either. Sixty per cent of us Mexicans demand a change."

Mr Fox, 57, stands more than two metres tall in his lizardskin cowboy boots. He reaches for a sombrero with a lavender hatband reading "Women for Fox!" and grins.

Copies of the ex-governor's trademark silver belt buckle are on sale in the party office. These common touches have a purpose. "I want to de-mystify the PRI super-hombre," he says, stroking his hombre-like bushy moustache.

All three presidential candidates are hustling for women's votes in a mutating Mexican economy. Single women now head four million households. Prodded by the country's recent economic setbacks and the plummeting peso, one in three women must work outside the home, compared with one in five in 1970.

The PRI party chairperson, Dulce Maria Sauri, notes: "All but one Mexican state is dominated by women voters. It is a fact that men must live with."

In the majority of rural pueblos, women take charge of the communities while men migrate north to work on farms or in factories in the United States - often without legal documents. Mr Fox also is targeting these upwardly mobile Mexicans with job creation schemes to keep them in Mexico.

"There is a huge difference of income," Mr Fox points out. "Here, labourers often earn under $5 (£3) a day, but in the US they can get closer to $60."

A pragmatist, the candidate is reaching out to these cross-border economic exiles for support because the union vote in Mexico is pledged to his rival, Mr Cardenas, who founded the Democratic Revolution Party (PRD). Although Mexican workers in the US are not entitled to absentee ballots, they wield enormous influence because they wire most of their salary home to their families. The Friends of Fox distribute phone cards to enable these workers to call home and help to get the voters out.

"Migrants are more open to what is possible after living in a real democracy," Mr Fox says. But he wants to look beyond the neighbourhood superpower. "I welcome trade agreements with the European Union. I have compared notes with Scotland Yard to upgrade our police technology."

Mr Fox ambles beneath the indigo arches of Rancho La Gorda with the same bluff charm that former US president Ronald Reagan once displayed at his Santa Barbara dude ranch.

His campaign themes echo Mr Reagan's early 1980s stump speeches: anti-drug, and pro-law and order. But Mr Fox doesn't dare emulate Mr Reagan's firewood chopping - that would offend the Ecologist Party, his closest allies - but he clearly doesn't mind getting his feet dirty.

Standing in a corral, he beckons his restive heifers with low murmurs. Cynics might say it is an allegory of his political style, telling the herds exactly what they want to hear and keeping them out of the broccoli patch.

"Campaigns need a little pepper and salt," says Mr Fox, winking. "If I just talk about the economy and corruption, people get bored."

He never fails to mention how he physically dwarfs his main rival, Mr Labastida, a dapper PRI technocrat who is tipped to win.

He mocks Mr Labastida's call for mandatory English lessons and computers in every classroom, but admits his own flawless English was an asset when he visited Washington last month.

Mr Fox refuses to disclose the names of his backers, mostly small businessmen who fear retribution if he doesn't win. Personalities matter far more than in any previous poll in Mexico. The outgoing president, Ernesto Zedillo, opted not to single out his preferred successor for the usual rubber stamp from the electorate.

For the first time in its history, the ruling party held a US-style primary to pick a nominee last November and American spin doctors were brought in to tailor the soundbites.

When Mr Zedillo's favourite, Francisco Labastida, came out on top, it seemed like business as usual. But the former envoy to Portugal is a career politician who maintains he is perfectly placed to battle corruption within the PRI establishment. His main strategy is to distance himself from the party machine. Jose Waldenberg, Mexico's top electoral official, concedes that previous PRI victories often have been dubious, featuring rigged ballot boxes, intimidating tactics and undisguised vote-buying. Two assassinations blighted the 1994 election.

Wholesale fraud will be difficult under his watch, Mr Waldenberg insists, since he aims to inform all Mexicans about their right to vote freely, one time only, and in secret. If he succeeds, the coming election may pose the first real challenge to the establishment.