Presidential elections¬†in Mexico used to be as sleepy as they were preordained, the product of 71 years of one-party rule that ended in 2000. But when Mexicans go to the polls on July 2, few will gripe that this campaign has been too quiet. The front runner, former Mexico City Mayor Andr√©s Manuel L√≥pez Obrador, of the leftist Democratic Revolution Party, has turned his rallies into carnival-style events, with supporters tossing marigold garlands around his neck and hoisting cages with squawking chachalaca birds that wear his opponents' names. To a raucous throng last week in Puebla, south of Mexico City, L√≥pez pledged to rid the government of the "arrogant, mediocre, lying thieves who cripple this country!" That got the crowd worked up even more.
It all may sound like populist theatrics, but it's working: polls show L√≥pez with a slight lead over Felipe Calder√≥n, of the conservative National Action Party. (By law, President Vicente Fox cannot run again.) And it highlights the issue driving this election--one that may have an impact on Americans as well as on the campesinos in Puebla. Mexico's economy is still in the clutches of Big Business barons, who often pay subsistence wages, hog bank credit and investment capital and choke financial oxygen from the medium-size and small businesses that employ two-thirds of Mexico's workers. Half of Mexico's 106 million people live in poverty, yet the country also has 10 billionaires. And economists say chronic disparity is contributing to the U.S.'s population of illegal immigrants: since 2000, Mexican migration to the U.S. has surged 25%.
L√≥pez, 52, has cast himself as the champion of Mexico's have-nots, promising to "keep our young people from having to abandon their towns and families for the other side of the border." A former social worker, he lives in an austere Mexico City apartment. He says he will steer resources to small businesses and end tax and regulatory breaks enjoyed by large corporations. He also wants to review the North American Free Trade Agreement, which has hurt Mexican farmers by deluging the market with cheap food imports. "For once," L√≥pez told TIME, "we're going to confront the great sin of the Mexican economic system--that it doesn't create jobs."
But critics also say L√≥pez has a self-righteous streak that colors his campaign, such as when he refused to take part in the first presidential debate. The Harvard-educated Calder√≥n, 43, has run negative ads that equate L√≥pez with Latin America's left-wing bogeyman, Venezuelan President Hugo Ch√°vez, and he charges that L√≥pez's social welfare agenda will jeopardize the nation's decade-long economic recovery and return Mexico to the debt nightmares of its past.
Such tactics have helped the uninspiring Calder√≥n close L√≥pez's once-sizable lead in the polls, although he suffered a setback this month when L√≥pez disclosed that while Calder√≥n was Fox's Energy Secretary, his brother-in-law received a pi√Īata of lucrative federal contracts. Says political analyst Sergio Aguayo: "The fact that L√≥pez is daring to come to the presidency without his hands tied by privileged interests is something new for Mexico. And it scares a lot of powerful people."