One election spot shows a masked wrestler fighting drug traffickers and promising to crack down on cartels. Another ad vows to give the death penalty to kidnappers. A third pledges to hand out free medicine to the poor. But the campaign for Mexico's midterm elections that is getting the most media attention is promising nothing at all and urging people to vote for nobody.
Dubbed the voto en blanco, or "blank vote," the curious movement emerged on blogs and in YouTube videos when campaigns kicked off last month. Since then it has snowballed, with prominent intellectuals and several politicians themselves joining its ranks. Its simple message: the whole political system stinks, so just draw one big cross on the ballot sheet on July 5, when the country has to choose the federal Senate and 500-seat lower House, six governors and hundreds of state and municipal offices. "Voting for the least bad candidate is like buying the least rotten fruit," says Jose Antonio Crespo, a well-known historian backing the movement. "I prefer to leave a note saying, 'Hey. All your fruit is rotten. I'll come back next time and I hope you have something fresh and edible.' "
The campaign reflects widespread disillusionment with the nation's young democracy just nine years after Mexico ended seven decades of one-party rule. Like Eastern Europeans, Mexicans hoped that opening up their political system would bring them better-paid jobs and safer streets. Instead, they have seen a wave of kidnappings, daily shoot-outs among drug gunmen and crowds of jobless; this year some analysts predict that the economy will shrink by more than 8%, the worst drop since the Great Depression.
Amid these difficulties, elected politicians appear increasingly useless at providing any solutions. TV bulletins have even shown federal lawmakers swinging at one another in fistfights in Congress. Voters are also furious at their representatives' six-figure salaries in a nation where the minimum wage is $5 a day. And while video evidence has shown prominent politicians stacking wads of dollar bills into briefcases or extorting businessmen, the same candidates keep beating the courts and getting back on the ballot. For the voto en blanco movement, Mexico has swung from dictatorship to a kleptocracy. One YouTube video for the campaign shows supposed politicians from the three main parties laughing as they tear into a cake shaped like Mexico.
Such rejection of the system has rattled the establishment. Officials at the Federal Electoral Institute (IFE) have been running an expensive campaign calling on people to vote and are unhappy about now having to argue their point. "To consolidate our democracy, we need more participation, not less," says IFE councillor Arturo Sanchez. The Roman Catholic Church has also spoken out against the movement, with one bishop calling it "stupidity." And several politicians have attacked its advocates as being "irresponsible" for encouraging people to shirk their civic duty.
Others claim the movement could be a Machiavellian conspiracy against certain parties. Pollsters consider that a low turnout would favor the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which ran Mexico for 71 straight years until 2000 and still has the largest number of card-carrying members. A survey by polling firm Demotecnia predicts that the PRI will carry 36% of the vote on election day, while President Felipe Calderon's National Action Party will drop to 31% and the leftist Democratic Revolution Party will get a meager 16%.
How successful is the voto en blanco campaign? The Demotecnia survey found only 3% of respondents saying they would deliberately annul their vote, suggesting the loud campaign is having a limited effect. "This is a very élitist movement of university professors and wealthy young people on the Internet," says Demotecnia president Maria de las Heras. "The media are covering it so much because it is something fun and different. But it will not have any long-term impact on Mexico's political system."
But another pollster, Daniel Lund of Mund Americas, says the campaign may be the beginning of major change in Mexican politics. While there may only be a small percentage of people who actually make the effort to go and annul their ballots, he predicts that the overall abstention rate will be a shocking 70%. "Politicians will not be able to ignore a level of turnout that low," he says. Lund says the voto en blanco supporters could then go on to form a new political opposition along with disaffected members of the main parties. "This movement is a response to a lack of serious options," he says. "But in a country like Mexico, with all its problems, you cannot go on [like this]. People need to see real alternatives to the politicians in power."