Maria de la Luz Garcia

EL BOTHE, Mexico (WOMENSENEWS)–Maria de la Luz Garcia says she’ll vote in Mexico’s July 2 election, but she won’t settle on which candidate to choose until she checks the box on her ballot.

“I don’t know any of them,” says the indigenous Otomi woman of the three major candidates seeking to take their place in power after President Vicente Fox steps aside. He is constitutionally barred from running again after serving six years in office.

Garcia is too busy for national politics. She’s preoccupied with working her cornfields in this tiny municipality in Queretaro state, about two hours northwest of Mexico City. She misses her husband and teen son, who are working in the United States without documents, while she remains behind with her 12-year-old daughter. If the men were here, they would share the responsibilities of farming and taking care of their cows and chickens.

Garcia is one of tens of thousands of women who live in Mexican villages and towns while their male relatives have migrated to “El Norte” for work.

With only a few days left before Mexico’s first presidential election since voters routed the dictatorial-style rule of the Institutional Revolutionary Party and ushered Fox into office, Garcia and many other female heads of household are giving a whole new meaning to the term “swing vote.”

Felipe Calderon of the conservative National Action Party and Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador of the leftist Party of the Democratic Revolution are running neck and neck. Roberto Madrazo, an entry from the Institutional Revolutionary Party hoping to restore its 71-year grip on power, is flagging. The latest June 22 poll published by the newspaper Milenio puts Lopez Obrador at 35 percent, Calderon at 30 percent and Madrazo at 29 percent.

A fourth candidate is a woman, Patricia Mercado, from the Social Democratic and Workers Alliance ticket, with 4.1 percent in the poll. Roberto Campo of the New Alliance Party has 0.5 percent.

Gender Lens Is Unfocused

Pollsters aren’t focusing on gender differences, and it is unknown whether Mexican women–who are just over half the nation’s voters–will materialize as a key voting bloc.

In interviews with Women’s eNews, several women, ranging from rural farmers to middle-class urbanites, did not talk in terms of right or left. They say they’re looking more at who is trustworthy or not, who is the cleanest and least corrupt. In a society where there is often no other way to get something done than to pay a bribe, the women expressed a yearning for leaders who can get public institutions to perform services the way they’re supposed to.

Since Fox’s dramatic victory in 2000, though, many express disillusionment with him and his National Action Party, feeling he did not enact enough change despite promises to enforce the rule of law and create more jobs. Women between the ages of 25 and 40, in particular, flocked toward Fox because of his promises of opportunity but are now disappointed, says Daniel Lund, an analyst with Mexico City-based Mund Americas polling firm.

“In real terms he hasn’t produced,” Lund says. While Fox can cite macroeconomic statistics and home ownership figures, “at the level of the family, that doesn’t resolve the social mobility question. Those are palliative.”

Others say Fox’s six-year term hasn’t been long enough to effect real change and boost Mexico’s global economic standing in ways that would help stem the tide of immigration northward.

Speaking to ‘Las Madres Solteras’

Meanwhile, the dual themes of migration and elections converge on female voters. The exodus north has left towns–particularly in states that export migrants, such as Michoacan, Zacatecas and others–to be run by women. They often administer the funds their relatives send home; they raise the children; they take care of the elderly. All three major candidates speak directly to single mothers, or “las madres solteras.”

According to Mexico’s Federal Electoral Institute, 34.4 million men are registered to vote and 37 million women–48.2 percent and 51.8 percent of the electorate–for a total of 71.3 million voters out of a population of about 100 million.

Pollsters, including Jorge Buendia, a spokesperson for Mexico City polling and consulting firm Ipsos-Bimsa, don’t spot much of a gender gap when it comes to which party to support. Lund says that the gender dynamic now takes a backseat to more pressing issues such as employment.

Lund points out that women traditionally voted for the Institutional Revolutionary Party because of its paternalistic bent and its promises to take care of them and their families, an appealing option in a climate of limited upward mobility. But now they want opportunity, he says.

Lopez Obrador has pledged to provide single mothers, the disadvantaged and students with pensions to address their lack of financial security. Calderon promises “to support single mothers, who have a double or triple burden of responsibility” and to expand a federal program called Oportunidades that targets female heads of household living in extreme poverty. And Madrazo also says he’ll give assistance to single mothers, including job fellowships and fair salaries.

Absent Men a Common Theme

Maria del Carmen Cervantes, 45, came to Mexico City from Guadalajara to watch the last candidate debate of the campaign in the city’s main square on June 6. She says she knows many women whose husbands are in the States, a common theme raised by women who plan to vote in the election. As she watched the debate on giant TV screens along with several thousand Lopez Obrador supporters who had traveled into town, she said she’s confident that he will generate more jobs “so that the men will have the option of returning to their homes.”

Graciela Arciniega, who registers voters and trains poll workers for the electoral institute in El Bothe and other rural towns, notes a marked absence of men. “The majority of men are in the United States because there are no sources of work here,” she says. “I’ve been knocking on doors to find voters and they’re all women.”

The immigration debate in Mexico centers on what the government is doing to keep its people from leaving. All candidates are talking about job creation as a means to give people incentive to stay and not feel compelled to leave in order to feed their families.

“Remittances do not make up for absence,” says Lund of the $20 billion that U.S. immigrants are believed to be sending to Mexico annually.

In El Bothe, Garcia cries as she talks about how much she wishes that her son, now 17, and her husband could move back. Her husband left two years ago and her son last year. Under Fox, immigration to the United States has increased as work has failed to materialize; there are now about 5.4 million undocumented male workers in the United States, according to the Pew Hispanic Center in Washington, D.C.

Garcia and others say that if one candidate could specifically promise some sort of economic reform that would bring the men home, that would be the winning ticket.

“If I knew it for a certainty, I’d vote for him,” she says. “But which one is it? And how would he do it? And where is he?”

Theresa Braine is a freelance journalist based in Mexico City.

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For more information:

Pew Hispanic Center
Information on Hispanics in the Americas:

Washington Post Election Primer: