Is a Woman President ‘Macho’ Enough for Mexico?

Is a Woman President ‘Macho’ Enough for Mexico?

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MERIDA, Mexico – In less than nine months, Mexicans will go to the polls to elect a new president, and already the tantalizing question has set social media here all abuzz: Is Mexico ready to elect a woman?

Mexico has had a black president in Vicente Guerrero, while Native Americans Benito Juarez and Porfirio Diaz also held that post. Now, Josefina Vazquez-Mota, a popular lawmaker for the ruling National Action Party, known as PAN, is consolidating her standing as a favorite to win the nomination.

Conventional wisdom says the Institutional Ruling Party, or PRI, is poised to return to power after being ousted in 2000, when Vicente Fox was elected. The handsome, dashing and charismatic Enrique Peña Nieto, the governor of Mexico State, is expected to be the PRI’s nominee.

Four factors have helped catapult Peña Nieto onto the national stage:

-- As an effective governor, he adeptly carried out a program of improving his state’s infrastructure, building new schools, daycare centers and health clinics, giving people access to a better quality of life.

-- Peña Nieto has enjoyed the attention of a fawning media that followed his every success and honed in on his Hollywood good looks. He also maintains friendships with executives of TV Azteca and Televisa, which have given him national exposure.

-- A respectable marriage to actress Angelica Rivera, a popular telenovela star, gives Peña Nieto instant name recognition with a fan base of millions.

-- The political machinery of the PRI has been only too happy to have a young -- Peña Nieto is 45 – man to present to the nation as the “new” face of the party. Speculation of close ties to the powerful, though disgraced former president Carlos Salinas further seals his reputation as the herald of the PRI’s return to the presidential palace.

Recent polls give him a 30-point lead over rival candidates. Past elections suggest a different picture.

The argument was made in 2006 that PRI candidate Andres Lopez Obrador would effortlessly defeat his PAN rival Felipe Calderon, thanks in part to Obrador’s widespread popularity and recognition. Calderon nevertheless went on to win by less than 1 percent.

Could a similar upset now be unfolding?

Signs across Latin America -- which has seen the ascendance of female presidential candidates being swept into office -- do not bode well for Peña Nieto.

At the G-20 Summit in Cannes, France this past week, U.S. President Barack Obama joked with French President Nicolas Sarkozy – both facing re-election bids in 2012 – that they could pick up a few tips from Argentine President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, who won her re-election bid earlier this month.

Argentina is Latin America’s third largest economy. Brazil, the largest economy in the region, also boasts a female president in Dilma Rousseff.

If Mexico, as the region’s second largest economy, were ready to join Brazil and Argentina in electing a female president, then women would govern more people throughout the hemisphere than live in the United States.

The possibility that a woman could be elected president has electrified social media, with a flurry of tweets and Facebook posts urging female voters to “mobilize” around Vazquez Mota. The consensus emerging is that it’s time “sisters” took responsibility -- and offered solutions -- to national problems “created by men.”

That female leaders are performing admirably in Brazil and Argentina, and that they have done so in Chile and Guatamala, further bolsters the notion that it is indeed the Decade of Women in Latin America.

So where does that leave the handsome and debonair Peña Nieto?

There is growing evidence of a backlash against him by women voters. Indeed, while he may be the expected PRI nominee, there is speculation among some social media users that he may be too good to be true.

Such skepticism is fueled in part by the emotional exhaustion wrought on Mexicans by the four year long “War on Drugs,” which has spurred a wave of violence that has claimed upwards of 50,000 lives. PRI officials fear that concern for public safety among voters could be Peña Nieto’s Achilles Heel.

His association with former president Carlos Salinas – whose brother was jailed for laundering millions of dollars and engaging in criminal activity – is yet another stain on his reputation. There is concern here that Peña Nieto will be a puppet
allowing Salinas to exercise power in Mexico once more.

For her part, Vazquez Mota claims that, as a former education minister, she is more in tune with the needs of Mexican families. She also brandishes her gender as a source of strength: while men resort to wars, she will use reason to bring the War on Drugs to a successful conclusion.

For many voters, there is early speculation -- perhaps even hope – that Vazquez Mota will begin that process by decriminalizing drugs, and allowing the U.S. military to take a more proactive role in military action against the drug cartels.

As the campaign begins to take shape, there is skepticism about Peña Nieto’s pretty-boy, too-good-to-be-true aura, and there is a groundswell of fascination with the idea of Vazquez Mota becoming the first female candidate for president from a major political party.

For the time being, however, social media speculation centers on one tantalizing question: Is a woman