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Candidates Mum on Energy Reform, NAFTA As Mexican Presidential Election Nears

Mexico faces presidential and national elections on Sunday following a campaign racked by violent deaths, accusations of corruption and gratuitous promises of cash handouts.

Almost nobody, including the candidates, is talking about such issues as the renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement or President Enrique Pena Nieto's energy reform.

In what is regarded as Mexico's Democratic era following the end of the one-party system of the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI) that ruled for most of the last century, all three of the leading presidential candidates were handpicked -- by themselves in two of the cases.

Under the PRI system, each president had a six-year, once-only term and handpicked his successor. In effect, the nation appeared to be ruled by a six-year monarchy.

For the current election, Pena Nieto chose as the PRI candidate Jose Antonio Meade, a top-level bureaucrat who has served as a minister for administrations of the PRI and of the Partido Accion Nacional (PAN), usually described as pro-business.

Meade has never been a member of either party. As an apolitical animal, he looks benevolent but highly bemused in the menagerie of the electoral hustings.

Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador is seeking the presidency for the third time. Formerly a candidate of the center-left Partido de la Revolucion Democratica (PRD), he has founded his very own party, the Movimiento Regeneración Nacional (Morena). To nobody's surprise, Morena chose him as its candidate.

The third candidate is Ricardo Anaya, a 39-year-old who looks slightly geeky but with eloquence beyond his years, is the president of the PAN who pole-vaulted over the rest of the party hierarchy to form an alliance with the PRD.

Anaya's supporters regard Lopez Obrador as a populist. However, many in the world of Mexican politics are prepared to tar Anaya with the same brush because of his plans to institute a universal minimum income that they say would drain to the last drop the nation's finances.

Pena Nieto's energy reform has been hailed by business leaders, especially those of the global energy sector, and even by European monarchs. Lopez Obrador does have policies on energy, though many analysts believe them to be very misguided, such as plans to build two refineries that they say would be sure to create losses.

Anaya's internet page proclaims his policies, including those on energy. But the words "oil" and "gas" are totally absent. Meade's official page includes plans for scholarships to inmates of the nation's jails, but only a meager mention of energy policy. Nor did energy have anything more than a passing mention in the three televised debates in which all of the top candidates took part, along with the independent Jaime Rodriguez "El Bronco".

Of course, the candidates may well be advised to steer away from the often pompous rhetoric on energy from the pre-reform past.

Certainly voters appear to be much more concerned about the pomp than about corruption, violence and poverty. According to the latest count, 49 aspirants for public office during the current election campaign have been killed. Only one was killed during the same period in the last presidential campaign in 2012.

Nor are these classical political assassinations like those that have shocked Mexico in the past. Very few of the latest killings have been the work of lone gunmen. On the contrary, they are narco killings, perpetrated by gangs of masked men using automatic weapons. The victims were running for local office. The narcos have no interest in bribing or killing government ministers, Rather, they target the officials who have powers to conceal clandestine airstrips and the other infrastructure of the gangs.

Meanwhile, low income voters are being wooed by offers of cash. People in a neighborhood in the south of Mexico City were reportedly thrilled recently to open a letter, with their name printed on the envelope and what looked like an e-wallet inscribed "1,500 pesos a month".

For some of the recipients, 1,500 pesos (US$75) a month could be a lifeline in a country where social benefits for the old, infirm and unemployed are meager, and about 40% of the workforce is in the "informal" economy. Some of them, like gas station attendants, earn tips but not wages. 

Few in what is a lower middle-class area where the letters arrived could afford to sneer at $75/month. The envelope, however, did not contain an e-wallet but a facsimile of one, accompanied by a message from the presidential campaign of Anaya.

This week the Federal Electoral Institute ruled that the e-wallet lookalikes were legitimate propaganda, not an effort to coerce voters. Anaya, Meade and Lopez Obrador have electoral proposals to boost the livelihoods of low-income voters. But Lopez Obrador has much more experience in the practice. When he was mayor of Mexico City, he promised to create an old-age pension. He kept that promise and other politicians have followed suit.

On Wednesday, the last day in which polls were permitted ahead of the election, El Financiero, the favorite daily of most of the business community showed 54% support for Lopez Obrador, with Meade and Anaya neck and neck with less than half as much,

On Sunday, the state electoral authority, El Instituto Nacional Electoral (INE), reckons that almost 84 million Mexicans will be able to vote on Sunday. In addition to choosing a president, voters will be electing 500 members of the lower House of Congress, the Chamber of Deputies, and 128 senators. Eight state governors and a new mayor of Mexico City will also be chosen. In addition, 3,326 local officials are to be elected.

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