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In Mexico, elections spur much apathy

Voters head to the polls Sunday after a fierce and costly campaign by 11 political parties struggling to recapture the democratic euphoria that swept Vicente Fox into the presidency three years ago.

But it hasn't been easy getting the 65-million registered voters pumped up to fill the 500-member lower house of Congress, or Chamber of Deputies, six governorships and a variety of local seats.

That's because many Mexican voters are beginning to share the disillusion of their American counterparts with costly and lengthy campaigns that seem to increasingly skirt the toughest issues of the day.

Some $500-million in public financing has been used by the parties to cover every pole, bridge and billboard with gaudy posters of every size and color, in addition to interminable radio and TV ads by the richest parties.

In a country where the minimum wage is about $5 a day and poor teenagers have to travel miles to attend high school, the taxpayer-financed campaigns are becoming a campaign issue. A poll Friday in Mexico City's Reforma newspaper showed 53 percent think campaigns are "ostentatious."

"We sure have our priorities mixed up," says Rogelio Alcantar, a gas station attendant, pointing to the ubiquitous campaign posters inundating his hometown of Dolores Hidalgo, Guanajuato.

"Imagine the number of schools, clinics, roads we could build with that money," Alcantar said. "It's obscene."

Aside from anger over the gush of public money for political campaigns, apathy is running high _ a surprising trend in a nation that only joined the club of truly democratic countries three years ago.

Back then, the choice was between the continuation of 71 years of presidential rule by the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, or the chance of change offered by Fox and his conservative National Action Party, or PAN.

Now that a divided Congress has blocked many of Fox's reforms, and voters have been opposed to many of them, this midterm election offers what many here say is little in terms of substance, choices and political alternatives.

Polls show the Chamber of Deputies might look much the same after the election as it does now: with the PRI and PAN splitting around 415 seats more or less evenly, and the other parties taking the rest.

Some polls indicate, however, the PAN might lose some seats, dealing a serious blow to Fox in what is seen partially as a referendum on his rule.

Under this scenario, the PRI could remain the predominant force in the chamber and the center-left Party of the Democratic Revolution, or PRD, could make significant gains.

All 11 parties promise honesty and hard work, but little else. A tiny new party, Mexico Posible, is raising the issues of abortion, drugs and same-sex marriage.

But turnout could fall to 45 or 40 percent _ compared to 63 percent in the 1997 midterm elections and 57 percent in 2000.

Apathy might signal a political message from voters, says Dan Lund, president of Mund Americas, a Mexico City polling firm.

"At first glance, in the aftermath of the elections, other than a minor adjustment, it will look like nothing has changed," Lund said. "But the message from voters to Congress couldn't be clearer: Congress better behave differently, or else it's payback time next time around."

The outcome will also spur a new round of speculation on what direction Mexico might go in the 2006 presidential race.

Could the PRI, left for dead three years ago, make a comeback with the behind-the-scenes help of former President Carlos Salinas de Gortari? Salinas, who is barred from running for office because there is no re-election in Mexico, is considered a brilliant politician, though viewed by many as Mexico's modern-day villain.

Lately, Salinas has been seen conferring with PRI stalwarts, many of whom view him as critical in providing leadership.

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