Washington Post, 17 February 2012, By Nick Miroff

Mexico’s drug war has cost 50,000 lives since President Felipe Calderon took office in December 2006, and when voters go to the polls to elect a new leader July 1, that dreadful figure may cost his party the presidency.

Ever-expanding violence and insecurity have left many Mexicans desperate for a leader who can stem the killings and pacify the gangsters. But public frustration has not translated into a substantive policy debate about how to change course, and political analysts say whoever succeeds Calderon will probably continue fighting the cartels in similar fashion — by working closely with the United States and relying heavily on the Mexican military.

“The majority of Mexicans want a change in strategy, but it’s more of a gut feeling that they want something different than a clear sense of what to do,” said independent pollster Jorge Buendia.

In surveys, security and job creation are consistently the two most important issues cited by respondents, Buendia said, but so far the presidential candidates have generally avoided the issues. “Reporters don’t ask, and they never move beyond generalities,” he said.

When pressed for specifics, the candidates tend to offer airy platitudes instead.

Even the candidate projected to benefit most from Calderon’s struggles — Enrique Pena Nieto, nominee of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) — has avoided staking out firm positions on security issues.

Pena Nieto has criticized Calderon as not having a “clear” diagnosis before launching a “hasty” offensive against the cartels, and he said he was in favor of withdrawing Mexican troops from city streets — but gradually, with no timetable.

“I’ve been the first to recognize that the federal government’s decision to take a tough stand and use the army against organized crime was the best option at the time, since the state has an irrefutable obligation to guarantee the security of the people,” he said in a recent speech.

The presidential vote is set for July 1, but Mexico’s campaign season will not be in full swing until next month. For now, contenders are still technically considered “pre-candidates,” barred from spending and stumping as official nominees. But for all practical purposes, a three-way presidential contest is well underway.

The PRI has placed its hopes for a comeback on Pena Nieto, the telegenic former governor of the state of Mexico, the country’s most populous. For months he has held a double-digit lead over potential rivals in polls, but his momentum has been slowed by stumbles and by insinuations from opponents — and Calderon — that his party will go soft on the traffickers.

A Pena Nieto victory would return his party to an office it lost in 2000 after ruling for 71 years through an extensive network of patronage, corruption and Mexican-style machine politics. But Pena Nieto is not seen as a shoo-in.

Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, the former Mexico City mayor, will run against him as the candidate of the left-leaning Revolutionary Democratic Party (PRD). Lopez Obrador lost to Calderon in 2006 by such a narrow margin that he refused to accept the results and spent more than a year calling himself “Mexico’s legitimate president.” He remains rock-star popular with many of Mexico’s poor.

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