There is increasing anxiety among commentators about a possible victory of Andrés López Obrador in the Mexican presidential elections Sunday. He will supposedly expand state ownership, spend irresponsibly, roll back free trade and divide the country -- leading to a spike in illegal immigration in the United States. Letras Libre magazine editor Enrique Krauze called him a "messianic populist" in a New York Times op-ed piece. John Fund, a Wall Street Journal columnist, has claimed that immigration will triple in a few months if Obrador is elected. Communications consultant and strategist Alan Stoga has stated that López Obrador is "instinctively anti-U.S."
These fears are misplaced.
As mayor of Mexico City, López Obrador actively supported private investment, kept the budget under control and delivered the goods. He is also the only candidate who has proposed to stop the tide of emigration through the implementation of a new national development strategy.
Mexico is a country of great wealth, but greater inequalities. More than 40 million live on less than $4 a day, while the wealthiest 10 percent of the population earn 40 percent of income. Wealth figures are even more drastic.
The government has historically done little or nothing to confront this problem. Well-off Mexicans pay almost no taxes and the government only takes in 14 percent of GDP. Welfare and unemployment benefits are unknown and job creation and salaries have stagnated. Mexico's per-capita real GDP has grown at only 0.7 percent annually since the early 1980s. The result is an apparently unstoppable wave of migration to the United States.
López Obrador promises to revitalize national industry, make the wealthy pay their fair share and install a basic safety net by lowering prices for basic goods and services and directly redistributing income to the poorest. He has also committed himself to improving public education and public-health services. Such policies will strengthen human capital as well as immediately improve the standard of living of Mexico's poorest families, reducing the incentive for emigration to the United States.
Ironically, the real danger for Mexico and the United States lies in a victory for Felipe Calderón of the National Action Party (PAN). He favors regressive fiscal policies, such as applying a value-added tax to food and medicine, and has promised to maintain the same trickle-down economic strategies that have led Mexico into its current predicament. Calderón is also implicated in fraud scandals involving the bank bailouts at the end of the 1990s (similar to the savings & loan crisis in the United States during the 1980s) and questionable million-dollar contracts to his brother-in-law while he was secretary of energy.
Calderón's critique of the welfare state is potentially explosive. There are already warning signs on the horizon. Tens of thousands of elementary school teachers have been on strike in the state of Oaxaca for weeks, leaving more than a million children without school. The union of mine workers has been threatening to strike on the very day of the elections. In the state of Mexico, federal and state police provoked a bloody street battle with flower vendors, killing two students. Assassinations linked to drug trafficking are on the rise throughout the country, with more than 400 in the state of Guerrero alone during 2006. President Vicente Fox has done little to pacify these conflicts, which may well be exacerbated by another president from the PAN.
Calderón's alliance with aggressively religious groups in the PAN is also troublesome. Mexico is a profoundly religious country, but since the revolution of 1910, there has been a radical separation between church and state -- even more so than in the United States. Priests could not vote until only a few years ago and church weddings are not recognized by the government. This is because of the long history of the Spanish colonial church's complicity with the ruling oligarchy. An attempt to redraw these institutional boundaries would question two central pillars of the modern, secular Mexican state and could lead to political instability.
López Obrador should not be distrusted merely because of his commitment to social justice and a clear separation between church and state. To the contrary, it is this very commitment that makes him particularly well prepared to confront the immigration issue. Calderón is the candidate who will most likely aggravate poverty and cause instability to the south, thereby increasing the flow of illegal immigrants across the U.S-Mexico border.
Irma E. Sandoval and John M. Ackerman are professors at the Institute for Social Research and the Institute for Legal Research, respectively, at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM).
Full text of article also available at: