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Is Drug War Issue Overrated In Mexico Elections?


Now we turn to presidential politics in Mexico. Americans are not the only people electing a new president this year. Mexicans are heading to the voting booth on Sunday. The frontrunner is Enrique Pena Nieto of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, also known as the PRI. That party dominated politics in Mexico for decades until a relatively recent time. The candidate in second place is Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador. He is with the Democratic Revolution Party.

We wanted to know more about this, so we've called upon NPR's Carrie Kahn. She's reporting on the campaign from Mexico City. Carrie Kahn, thanks so much for speaking with us.

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: Oh, thanks for having me, Michel.

MARTIN: Carrie, we've been reporting, as you have, of course, and as many news outlets have, on the drug-related violence that's plagued Mexico in recent years. Approximately 50,000 Mexicans have been killed since the current president, Felipe Calderon, escalated the drug war as we think of it.

And I wanted to ask, is that the top issue in this election or not?

KAHN: I think that's a really great question because it just depends where you are in the country and, you know, I'm here in Mexico City and it was very surprising to me, but it's not the big issue here. Mexico City is a relatively - relatively, I say - safe city. The drug - it's not what it was like 10 years ago when kidnapping and robberies were just standard fare here.

The drug war really isn't affecting the capital, but I have to have a caveat to that because there was a horrific shooting at the Mexico City airport earlier this week, just right inside one of the terminals at the food court, and that's really unheard of in Mexico City, especially at the airport. Three federal police agents were shot at 9:00 in the morning in front of, you know, bystanders that were scrambling for cover under tables and in bathrooms and stuff.

MARTIN: Well, if it's not the drug war, what is...

KAHN: But you don't really see that in Mexico City, and so here it is not an issue. And this is the most populous part of the country, which is also interesting, and the neighboring states. And - but that's all we hear about at home, is drug war, but here it is not the big issue.

MARTIN: What is? If that's not the big issue, what is? What are you hearing more now that you're there?

KAHN: Well, there's a lot of issues. The economy. When you ask Mexicans about violence - or they call it security or safety - that is a big issue for them, so crime and safety is a big issue. And the economy. It's been a sluggish economy for most of the last 10 years. Last year was a booming one for Mexico, which is quite interesting. The economy, macro-economically, is getting better, but it is a very difficult situation economically for Mexicans, so that is something that they're talking about. They want more opportunities. They want more jobs.

MARTIN: What is the level of enthusiasm like among Mexican voters? You know, we're hearing from - just reading the coverage from other reporters who are saying this is actually one of the more boring elections that they've seen in years, which is, I think, surprising to a lot of people north of the border, given what seemed like very high stakes.

So what's the atmosphere there around the election?

KAHN: Well, it depends - again, it depends where you are and what you're looking at. I think what's most interesting is that they're - the leading candidate, as you said, is Enrique Pena Nieto of the PRI Party. Now, the PRI Party ran Mexico for most of the 20th century, from the Mexican Revolution until 2000, when they were forced out of power. They were an authoritarian, strong arm, election-rigging party for 71 years.

And they were thrown out in this amazing democratic revolution, when the PAN Party that is in power now came into power. They've been in for 12 years. So now the PRI is poised to come back. If you look at polls, he is - Enrique Pena Nieto is up by, like, 12 - some have him up as high as 15 points, so that's a very interesting thing.

We went to a huge rally that he held. Campaigning stopped two days ago and so he held his last big rally in Mexico City. There was 100,000 people there and the enthusiasm level was high, but then we went to another rally for the second place candidate, as you said, from the leftist party, and he filled the streets of Mexico City all the way to the massive Zocalo Plaza in the center, the historic center, and the enthusiasm there was very high.

But if you look at the polls too, you can see that there is such a wide spread between first and second place, so I think that has diminished some of the enthusiasm, and you also see that there's about 12 - maybe in some polls as high as 20 percent of people who haven't made their minds up yet.

So as you said, it's not exciting as it was in 2000. It's not exciting as it was even in 2006, when it was a referendum on the PAN's first place in power. People are weary. They're tired of the drug war, but again, it's not the burning issue here.

MARTIN: Finally, Carrie, before...

KAHN: There's a lot of contradictions that come up when you're looking at the election.

MARTIN: Carrie, before we let you go, is there confidence that this election will, in fact, be free and fair? Do the people sort of heading to the polls - do the voters believe that the winner is, in fact, the winner, or is there kind of a subtext of concern about corruption or some sort of disruption at the polls?

KAHN: Well, Mexico has had an independent electoral body for many years now and it is a publicly financed election and this independent body has - I think the last number was they have over 1,000 observers at polling places throughout the country, and not like the times of the past. Each(ph) party has observers there, so when you go to a polling place, there's like 15 observers there.


KAHN: And also, the Organization of American States is here. They have observers. I don't think there's any concern about that. It just depends on how - what is the spread between the first and second place.


KAHN: In 2006, Manuel Lopez Obrador lost the election by a razor thin margin, by less than a percentage point, and so he claimed fraud. He's always claimed and his supporters have always claimed that there was fraud and voter manipulation and so he lost that election.

MARTIN: All right, Carrie. We have to...

KAHN: This year, again, he's not really talking about it that much. A little bit...

MARTIN: Carrie, Carrie. Excuse me, Carrie. We have to leave it there.

Carrie, we have to leave it there for now. Thank you. NPR's Carrie Kahn is...

KAHN: OK. Thank you so much.

MARTIN: ...reporting on the Mexican election from Mexico City. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.