July 25, 2005
Reports Sully Clean Image of a Mexican Candidate
MEXICO CITY, July 22 - Santiago Creel, Mexico's former interior minister, had that most rare of assets among Mexican politicians: a squeaky clean image. He seemed the clear front-runner to carry the banner for President Vicente Fox's conservative party in next year's presidential elections.

But five days before Mr. Creel stepped down as interior minister at the end of May to run for president, he handed out lucrative gambling permits to companies affiliated with the nation's dominant media company, Televisa, and to other wealthy businessmen who could help his campaign.

News reports about those permits have not only raised concerns that Mr. Creel used the powers of public office for his own political gain, but also heaped more criticism onto a beleaguered Mr. Fox, who has been accused of turning a blind eye to this country's corrupt political traditions, rather than doing away with them.

Public anger deepened Friday after Mr. Creel issued a spending report that indicated that he had paid less than a third of the average prices for advertising on Televisa during prime time.

He flatly denied the accusations against him in an interview only days before. He described the gambling giveaways as part of an effort to hit the old authoritarian regime where it hurts, breaking dominance over off-site gambling by giving other businessmen their first real chance to compete.

Sergio Sarmiento, a political analyst, said it remained unclear whether Mr. Creel sought special treatment from Televisa. Still, he said, it was clear from opinion surveys and newspaper coverage that most people believed the worst, and that the Mr. Clean of Mexican politics was not considered clean anymore.

But there is more, Mr. Sarmiento said, than Mr. Creel's image at stake. The latest political storm, he said, has revealed a gaping hole in the electoral changes that ended more than seven consecutive decades of authoritarian rule and brought Mexico its first opposition government in 2000.

Those widely acclaimed changes imposed the first real restrictions on campaign finances during the official race for president, bringing, for example, a $90 million fine against the long-ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party for overspending during Mexico's last presidential elections five years ago.

But this country's burgeoning democracy has created real competition for public office. Candidates feel pressure to project themselves big and early. Political parties have been forced to give their members or voters a say in selecting their candidates.

A year before voters cast their ballots for president, candidates have begun so-called pre-campaigns, and their parties are organizing their first internal elections. The contests will be similar to primaries in the United States, but they never really existed until now and so there are no rules on spending for them.

One result, political analysts said, has been an absolute free-for-all. This country is saturated from the highways to the airwaves with all the trappings of a political season in full swing, and no one knows who is paying for it, or how much they are paying.

Billboards and prime-time television are dominated by candidates' images and slogans. Candidates are on the move, opening offices, publishing books, handing out T-shirts, and flying to and fro on luxury jets. Now there are signs that the politicians who promised to end the worst habits of the old ruling system - using power to win more power - have instead begun to make good use of them.

"Fraud is not the problem in Mexico anymore - there are not going to be ballot boxes missing on election day," said Alonso Lujambio, a political analyst. "This is going to be a campaign of unstoppable financial irregularities."

"No democracy has been able to resolve the illegal flows of money into political campaigns," he added. "And in Mexico, our controls are weaker than most."

In a visit to Washington, Luis Carlos Ugalde, the president of Mexico's Federal Electoral Institute, agreed. He too worried that Mexico had overcome electoral chaos and fraud, but that it had started a new trend toward gigantic campaign spending. Current law, he said, allowed each candidate to spend about $60 million for each campaign. But most people expected those limits to be passed well before election day.

"We have a new generation of problems," Mr. Ugalde said. "And the I.F.E. can do nothing about them because of its own legal limitations."

Ulises Beltrán, a political scientist with a private research organization known as Cide, said that when the Institutional Revolutionary Party ran the country like a monarchy, political hopefuls were almost forbidden from making their aspirations public ahead of time. Political parties selected their candidates behind closed doors, he said, and did not disclose their names until close to filing deadlines.

The registration deadline for the presidential elections next July is January, and that is when Mexico's campaign financing controls kick in.

The candidates for president began campaigning unofficially months ago, and so intense public scrutiny began. None of the three leading candidates have emerged unscathed.

Mayor Andrés Manuel López Obrador of Mexico City, the front runner in most polls, portrays himself as a poor man among Mexican politicians. He raises his three sons in an apartment in a working-class neighborhood. He drives around town in an old Nissan Sentra.

Still, his chief political operatives have been caught with their hands in illegal money. One, René Bejarano, was caught months ago accepting a bribe from a businessman seeking contracts with the city. The city's former finance minister was caught playing a high roller on a city bureaucrat's salary in Las Vegas.

Roberto Madrazo, who is considered the favorite to become the presidential candidate for the Institutional Revolutionary Party, has long been hounded by accusations of winning elections using multimillion-dollar campaign fraud schemes, some as recent as the party's victory in the race for governor last month in the state of Mexico and another election in 1994 that propelled Mr. Madrazo into the governor's office of the southern state of Tabasco.

The accusations against Mr. Madrazo have never been proven.

Mr. Creel, of the conservative National Action Party, was considered an awkward, even inept political operator. But at least, people believed, he was honest.

Until now.

His opponents in the party primaries have accused Mr. Creel of using his old office to post his image in government-run grocery stores, of using government vehicles and airplanes for campaign appearances, and most recently, of giving away gambling permits for off-site betting houses to powerful businessmen who could open the nation's airwaves to him.

Mr. Creel's own spending reports on Friday intensified those charges, and the party became the first to impose spending limits on candidates registered to participate in its primary elections.

The limits will allow each candidate to spend more than $50,000 a day for the next 100 days.

In his recent interview, the bags under Mr. Creel's eyes, and the ragged stubble on his face made it clear he was feeling a little weary from the fight. But he sounded determined.

"This is the way of democracies," he said when asked about the accusations against him. "I believe that democracies have this thing by which a lot of times the competition forgets proposals and concentrates on personal attacks.

"The polls we see show that one of my greatest attributes is that I am honest," he said. "And so that's where" his opponents "are systematically hitting me."