– Monica Campbell, Chronicle Foreign Service Thursday, 29 June 2006
04:00 PDT Mexico City – She's pro-choice and anti-death penalty, favors same-sex marriage and packs a powerful punch with voters tired of mud-slinging candidates. But Patricia Mercado -- Mexico's maverick presidential contender in Sunday's election -- continues to push issues other candidates avoid.
She is "gutsy ... for representing those who nobody cares to represent," wrote German Dehesa, a prominent columnist in the daily newspaper Reforma.
The 49-year-old economist is a long-standing feminist and human rights activist whose championing of gays, women and indigenous groups might appeal to many Bay Area voters. But as the candidate from the underfunded Social-Democratic and Rural Alternative Party, campaigning on hot-button issues such as gay marriage and decriminalization of abortion means Mercado's chances of winning the top office Sunday are next to nada. Most polls suggest she will receive only 3 percent to 4 percent of the vote.
Yet that could be enough to tag her as "Mexico's Ralph Nader," the defiant Green Party candidate blamed for weakening Democrat Al Gore in his 2000 campaign against George W. Bush. Some analysts say Mercado could siphon valuable votes away from leftist Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador of the Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD) in what most observers believe will be a close election.
Like Nader, Mercado dismisses any spoiler role. "Democracy means the right of the people to follow their conscience," she said.
In a five-candidate race, polls show Mercado in fourth place, far behind the two frontrunners -- Lopez Obrador and Felipe Calderon of President Vicente Fox's conservative National Action Party (PAN). Roberto Madrazo of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) is a distant third.
Although Mercado doesn't expect to win, her down-to-earth plainspoken style and liberal political agenda have attracted some hardcore supporters.
"She represents a real choice for the progressive left," said Gustavo Ramirez, a 28-year-old government worker employed by a federal agency that distributes food to the poor. "I would much rather give a new party a chance, for a candidate I respect, then vote for one candidate just to punish the other."
Mercado has never held public office, but she is no newcomer to politics.
In 1991, she ran for Congress as a candidate for the Trotskyist Revolutionary Workers' Party, and later founded another leftist party, Mexico Posible, which lost its legal status in 2003 after failing to receive the required minimum of votes. She has also represented Mexico at the World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995.
Mercado is driven by the idea of offering Mexicans a new, leftist alternative, "a choice that is in line with their core convictions," she said in a recent interview. "Enough with voting for the least-worst candidate, which takes the country nowhere."
She doesn't identify with the Zapatista National Liberation Army, the indigenous rebel group based in the southern state of Chiapas led by its ski-masked spokesman, Subcomandante Marcos. "It's not parliamentary, it's not taking a democratic route," she said.
Instead, she says her models are three leftist social-democrats: Chile's President Michelle Bachelet, Uruguay's President Tabare Vazquez and Spain's President Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero.
It's a left that is "modern, open-minded, reformist and internationalist, and it springs, paradoxically, from the hard-core left of the past," wrote Jorge Castaneda, Fox's former foreign minister, in this month's Foreign Affairs magazine.
Lopez Obrador, however, is not Mercado's ideal leftist. She derides him for not speaking strongly about women's rights and discrimination against minority groups. She also points that he once belonged to PRI, which ruled Mexico with patronage and an iron fist for 71 years until Fox's election in 2000.
"He's more of a populist, making big promises and relying on handouts for support," said Mercado. "The PRD cannot expect other left-leaning parties to fall under its umbrella if it keeps up with Mexico's old, flimsy political ways."
Still, political observers say Mercado and Lopez Obrador have much in common. Both support expanding Mexico's social programs, particularly those aimed at closing the country's growing gap between rich and poor. And both have questioned the benefits to Mexico of the 1994 North America Free Trade Agreement, known as NAFTA.
For his part, Lopez Obrador has not criticized Mercado or expressed public concern about the votes she may take from him.
"Lopez Obrador has been careful with Mercado," said Jorge Zepeda, a political columnist for El Universal, a Mexico City daily. "I don't think he considers her a real risk, so he doesn't gain anything by insulting her." And if the PRD candidate wins Sunday, "he'll win nothing by isolating other leftists."
At her last rally Saturday in front of the stone pillars of Mexico City's imposing Monument of the Revolution, a reggaeton band warmed up a crowd of 700 supporters. The event marked the tail end of a nationwide blitz that, owing to a slim campaign budget and tiny staff, often forced Mercado to tote her own luggage and stay at budget hotels.
Meracado supporter Candido Rendon, 42, who owns a taxi stand in the state of Mexico, attended the rally but said he fears his vote won't count. Gomez reflects the shaky loyalty of some Mercado admirers, who are weighing the political cost of voting for her. They are well aware that the Social-Democratic and Rural Alternative Party must attract at least 2 percent of the vote to hold seats in Congress and run future presidential candidates. But they also know that Lopez Obrador is the best bet to beat Calderon.
Taking the podium, Mercado homed in on voters like Gomez.
"Don't close out new candidates just as our democracy gets under way," she said. "Break free from the traditional parties. Don't fear turning your back to them."
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