Grass roots key for leftist in Mexico

AMACUZAC, MEXICO — AMACUZAC, Mexico -- In his bid to win Sunday's presidential election, leftist candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador can count on a secret weapon: the yellow dune buggy stuffed with campaign fliers that volunteer activist Raul Esquivel drives to the rural hamlets surrounding this town in southern Mexico.

The senior citizens of Mexico City are another of Lopez Obrador's secret weapons. They clip out newspaper articles to make campaign fliers and write songs about their hero that they'll sing to anyone who will listen.


For two years, Lopez Obrador and his supporters have been preparing for this moment, the homestretch of a campaign in which thousands of grass-roots volunteers and a seasoned party apparatus have a chance to bring the left to power for the first time.

Holding a narrow lead in most polls, Lopez Obrador and his Democratic Revolution Party (PRD) are counting on people power to carry them to victory over the better-funded campaign of conservative Felipe Calderon, whose advertising more closely mirrors U.S. campaign tactics.


"There was a time when all the PRD did was get people to fill up the plazas for rallies," said Gumercindo Toledo Diaz, a longtime party activist in Morelos state, which includes Amacuzac, a rural municipality with about 18,000 residents. "But those people don't all vote. We've learned that you win by getting people to the polls on election day."

Of the three major parties competing in the election, Calderon's National Action Party (PAN) has the smallest network of grass-roots organizations.

PAN leaders think a big last-minute media campaign will sway the estimated 10 percent to 15 percent of voters who remain undecided. At least three television spots this week warn voters of a financial disaster if Lopez Obrador is elected.

But the PAN is not ignoring the impoverished masses. In rural Mexico, the party is counting on the network of support built by Calderon campaign manager Josefina Vasquez Mota, who was secretary of social development under President Vicente Fox. That Cabinet position gave Vasquez Mota access to innumerable contacts among rural leaders.

"Campaigns are like wars. You start them from the air, but you win them on the ground, with infantry," said pollster Maria de las Heras, whose poll for the Mexico City newspaper Milenio gave Lopez Obrador a lead of 5 percentage points last week. "Calderon is the best in the air, but he has the weakest infantry."

At least on paper, the best ground operation still belongs to the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). During seven decades in power before Fox was elected, the PRI perfected the system of gifts, cash payments and threats of aid cutoffs used to lure poor people's votes.

But after its connection to federal coffers was snipped by the election of the PAN's Fox in 2000, the PRI's influence diminished rapidly in many areas of the country. The party's candidate, Roberto Madrazo, lags in third place, tainted by corruption charges.

"The PRI is betting its traditional structures will bring votes, but they don't control those structures like they used to," said Dan Lund, a Mexico City pollster. Last week, a federation of 30 unions that once was a bulwark of the PRI endorsed Lopez Obrador.


In Amacuzac, where the PRI controls the local government, residents say election day or election eve gifts have been a local tradition, and the PAN appears to have stepped into the gift-giver role. The party organized a big lunch recently in Amacuzac.

Hector Tobar writes for the Los Angeles Times.