Mexico's choice: Join Latin America's leftist tide or stay with a conservative

MEXICO CITY -- Mexicans buffeted by a mudslinging, polarized presidential campaign are choosing today between plunging into Latin America's left-wing tide or electing a conservative who favors free trade and globalization.

With leftist Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador and conservative Felipe Calderon running neck-and-neck, the election -- which will also pick both houses of congress and five governors -- hinges on class divisions that have seldom been talked about so openly in Mexican politics.

For 71 years, until President Vicente Fox's victory in 2000, the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, ruled Mexico by claiming to represent all economic classes. Fox's victory ushered in full democracy and bettered life for the middle class but failed to create millions of jobs, tame Mexico's drug barons or settle its migrant-labor problems with the United States.

Today, half of Mexico's 103 million people live on $4.50 a day and the poorest 20 million earn half that -- a social and cultural gulf that has been the cornerstone of Lopez Obrador's campaign to succeed Fox, who is constitutionally barred from seeking-re-election.

The divide was on vivid display recently as his supporters cut through a swanky Mexico City shopping mall on their way to a campaign rally. Farming families who had never encountered escalators were hesitant to get on them, drawing disdainful looks from well-dressed onlookers.

This election boils down to a race between those strangers in the shopping mall and Mexicans who fear losing the low-interest loans and economic stability that emerged under Fox's disciplined budgets and high international reserves.

For all the divisions exposed in the campaign, there is much that all three candidates agree on. They advocate close U.S. ties and U.S. immigration reform that would allow more Mexicans to work legally north of the border. They all promise to crack down on crime, and Lopez Obrador has called for the army to play a greater role in fighting drug trafficking -- a departure from the left's anti-military tradition.

The last polls all showed a statistically insignificant gap between the front-runners. First results will come in by about 8 p.m. today.