Other Americans vote

Posted: Jan 09, 2006 12:05 AM

This year, our two neighbors and fellow members of the North American Free Trade Area will have general elections -- Canada on Jan. 23 and Mexico on July 2 -- and from north and south of the border we'll hear some disconcerting rhetoric. But we shouldn't get too alarmed. Our two neighbor nations are asymmetrical demographically and economically -- Canada has 32 million people with per capita incomes of $24,470; Mexico has 104 million people with per capita incomes of $6,230. Oddly, though, they do have symmetrical political party systems.

 Each has only one party with substantial support in all regions -- the Liberal Party in Canada and the PRI in Mexico. These parties have been governing for most of the recent past -- the Liberals for 28 of 38 years since 1968, the PRI from 1929 to 2000 -- and both have been beset by corruption.

 Both countries have left-wing parties to which voters have not been willing to entrust their national governments -- the New Democratic Party in Canada, the PRD in Mexico. Both have right-wing parties often criticized for being too pro-free market and too pro-U.S. -- Conservatives in Canada and PAN in Mexico.

 Canada also has the Bloc Quebecois, on the ballot only in Quebec. The right and left parties also have limited geographic appeal. Conservatives win few votes in Quebec, and the NDP runs third outside a few metro and mining areas, while Mexico's PAN is weak in southern Mexico and the PRD is weak in the north.

 In Canada, the Liberals have impressive advantages -- wide geographic reach, a seasoned leader in Prime Minister Paul Martin, an economy that has been growing impressively and greater acceptance in possibly separatist Quebec. But they also have scandal problems, including revelations that an anti-separatist ad campaign in Quebec set up by then-Prime Minister Jean Chretien funneled hundreds of millions of dollars to well-connected Liberals. More recently, there has been a criminal investigation of alleged insider trading involving Finance Minister Ralph Goodale.

 In 2004, the Liberals led Conservatives in popular votes by 37 percent to 30 percent, but won only a plurality of seats and had to govern with support from the NDP. Recent polls show the two parties tied or Conservatives ahead, and there are enough seats within their reach for them to form a government with the Bloc Quebecois.

 Martin's trump card is anti-Americanism: He pointedly refused to cooperate with the United States on missile defense and got into a verbal spat with the U.S. ambassador. He has charged that the Conservatives' Stephen Harper has a "hidden agenda" -- code words for suggesting he's a clone of George W. Bush.

 In Mexico, the leader in the polls could be even more hostile to the United States. The PRD's Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador has won wide popularity as mayor of Mexico City and is running on the platform of "the poor first." President Vicente Fox tried to have him declared ineligible, but backed down.

 It's unclear how far Lopez Obrador would retreat from the market policies of Fox and his PRI predecessors Ernesto Zedillo and Carlos Salinas de Gortari. But Fox, with no pan majority in the Congreso, has been unable to open up the oil industry to foreign investment and has sharply criticized the Bush administration and Congress for not allowing easier immigration. Lopez Obrador and Roberto Madrazo, the PRI candidate with longtime ties to old machine politics, would most likely be even more critical. PAN candidate Felipe Calderon, from a different faction of the party than Fox, has been rising in polls, but might be critical, too.

 So the prospect is for rhetorically hostile governments in our two neighbors. Even if Harper and Calderon win, they will probably lack legislative majorities, and they will have to deal with the chattering classes in Toronto's Rosedale and Mexico City's San Angel who, like their counterparts in Georgetown, reflexively oppose U.S. foreign policy and ooze with contempt for Bush.

 Back around 1990, Canada's Brian Mulroney and Mexico's Salinas strengthened ties with the United States. Those days are gone. But neither country seems about to give up the economic benefits of NAFTA or to join Fidel Castro or Venezuela's Hugo Chavez. We might not like our neighbors' campaign rhetoric, but we can live with the results.