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Candidates covet crucial female vote

March 13, 2012

As Mexico’s presidential election on July 1 pits a ladies’ man against a woman, the female vote could play a more decisive role than usual.

With Josefina Vazquez Mota of the National Action Party (PAN) gradually gaining ground on him in the polls, Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) candidate Enrique Peña Nieto is looking to win over the female electorate in order to retain his lead.

This may take more than a flash of those perfect teeth. According to a report published by a major Mexican newspaper, Peña Nieto hopes to do so by focusing on gender equality and even promising better soap operas.

Last week Mural published a draft strategy by the frontrunner’s campaign team entitled “The Women’s Candidate.” Allegedly prepared by campaign coordinator Gerardo Ruiz Esparza and technical secretary Roberto Padilla, the memo calls for the PRI to take the lead in women’s rights and “promote the development of a new, more equal model of social and family life.”

It says Peña Nieto should promise to staff his campaign and government teams with equal numbers of men and women, raise budgets to combat domestic violence and increase female participation in public-sector management roles.

Proposed actions include staging a rally before five to ten thousand people on the first day of the official campaign season (March 30), where Peña Nieto is declared “the women’s candidate.” Another suggested policy is to replace the National Institute for Women (Inmujeres) created by former President Vicente Fox with a new government body for gender equality.

Bizarrely, the memo also suggests that Peña Nieto “promote new models of coexistence” through prime-time soap operas. Telenovelas are hugely popular among housewives in Mexico, but the proposed campaign promise of better soap operas has drawn derision from the national press.

Peña Nieto’s campaign team quickly denied the existence of any such draft outlining the candidate’s plans to target female voters. They slammed Mural for running a “systematic strategy to discredit Peña Nieto” by publishing “unverified information on its front page as if it were valid.”

Whether or not the document is legitimate, there is no doubt that both leading candidates are striving to win over female voters. While by no means a homogeneous demographic, women account for half of the electorate in Mexico. Should either candidate manage to attract a majority of female voters, this could be enough to swing the election their way.

Peña Nieto, 45, is young, handsome and has a glamorous wife in telenovela star Angelica Rivera. He was once considered the obvious choice of Mexican housewives, but since winning the nomination of the incumbent PAN last month, Vazquez Mota has been steadily eating into his support base.

Six years his senior, Vazquez Mota, is the first woman  to represent one of Mexico’s three major parties in a presidential election. Although the PAN has lost support over President Felipe Calderon’s war on organized crime, her candidacy offers the party a unique selling point as campaign season approaches.

In a country notorious for machismo, Vazquez Mota has not hidden her femininity but flaunted it. She also demonstrated a predatory instinct after Peña Nieto floundered last December by making the seemingly sexist comment, “I’m not the woman of the house,” when pressed on the price of tortillas in an interview.

Vazquez Mota sought to capitalize on the gaffe by launching a page on her website titled, “I am the woman of the house.” Aiming to project the image of a regular mom, she posted photos of herself greeting members of the public during a carefully staged trip to the supermarket.

Despite both candidates’ posturing, there is one factor that limits the potential impact of any unified female vote: the patriarchal nature of Mexican society.

According to the National Council to Prevent Discrimination (CONAPRED), 3.4 million Mexican women will be told who to vote for by their partners. Disturbingly, 11 percent of Mexican males consider it justifiable to beat their wife if she disobeys.

PAN candidate praised brutal dictator

Josefina Vazquez Mota was engulfed in controversy this week after The Economist published “Dictatorship and Development,” an article she wrote in 1998 praising the policies of former Chilean dictator General Pinochet.

“The Chilean economy was left to a group of experts who had to face a crisis in the early 80s and their public policies in general were attached to the principles of market economy that have been followed to this day and have been strengthened and consolidated over the years,” wrote the National Action Party (PAN) presidential candidate in a previous occupation as advisor to the Mexican Employers’ Association (Coparmex).

The hashtag #Pinochet lasted over 24 hours on Monday and Tuesday among the most discussed “trending topics” on social-networking site Twitter. Vazquez Mota praised the Chilean dictator for “the correct application of principles and policies,” noting “that is what we must strive toward and continue promoting hard-won democracy today.”

Any commitment to Pinochet-style “democracy” would be cause for grave concern in Mexico. General Pinochet overthrew Chile’s democratically elected President Salvador Allende in a military coup backed by the United States on September 11, 1973. Thousands were killed, tortured and went missing in the ensuing years.

Working closely with a team of U.S. economists known as the “Chicago Boys,” Pinochet became a leading proponent of neoliberalism in the 21st Century. He was also a friend and firm political ally of British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, another figure that Vazquez Mota admires.

Her website (www.josefina.mx) includes a hagiography of the conservative Iron Lady, or “Tatcher” as her name is consistently misspelt. It would be interesting to know what former Chilean President Michelle Bachelet – who was famously tortured by Pinochet’s agents –makes of all this.

Vazquez Mota interviewed the socialist politician in her book, “Nueva oportunidad: Un Mexico para todos,” and lists Bachelet on her website among female world leaders to have inspired her. The respect is unlikely to be mutual.

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