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In Mexico's election, social programs could be a deciding factor for voters

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

Mexicans will vote for a new president on Sunday. The ruling party's candidate is leading by double digits in most polls, even though critics are worried that if the party further consolidates its power, Mexico's democracy could suffer. Voters, however, seem motivated by one issue - new popular welfare programs. NPR's Eyder Peralta reports.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Non-English language spoken).

DETROW: The rallies for Morena, Mexico's ruling party, are usually full to the brim. They set up in open fields or in the parking lots of strip malls. Jacinto Sanchez Ramos (ph) walks around with a framed official portrait of outgoing President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador like he's the pope or some kind of saint. Mexicans love the president so much, he says, they ask to take their picture with the picture.

JACINTO SANCHEZ RAMOS: (Non-English language spoken).

EYDER PERALTA, BYLINE: And that tells you that life is different in this country because of the social programs, he says. During the last six years, the Morena party has expanded social programs in Mexico. They now hand out bimonthly checks to older people, to the disabled, to working single moms.

(SOUNDBITE OF BELL RINGING)

PERALTA: Denise Dresser is a political scientist and a pro-democracy activist. She sees something more sinister, and she's been traveling the country issuing dire warnings. Not long ago, Mexico was known as the perfect dictatorship.

DENISE DRESSER: And now Morena, for the sake of putting the poor first, national sovereignty, are calling for a return to that.

PERALTA: Yes, Morena has instituted new social programs, but, she says, they are also consolidating power. They've militarized the country and proposed reforms to the judiciary and the electoral system that Dresser says threaten the country's checks and balances. But her warnings are being met with a yawn by the electorate.

DRESSER: And the reason we get a yawn is because our democracy was very far from perfect because it, in many ways, was elitist, because the parties that were in power betrayed the agenda of democracy.

PERALTA: Viri Rios, a political scientist and author of "It's Not Normal," a book about Mexico's deep inequality, says when the country turned toward democracy in the late '90s, it developed a system that empowered Mexico's business class.

VIRI RIOS: They were talking, for example, about reductions in taxation. They created labor reforms that were actually very regressive. The minimum wage basically didn't grow at all during the first 20 years of Mexican democracy.

PERALTA: Rios says Lopez Obrador has pounced rhetorically on Mexicans' disappointment with democracy, but his party also made real changes.

RIOS: They say that they are going to increase social expenditure, and they do it. They say that they are going to increase the minimum wage, and they do it.

PERALTA: At least 5 million people were lifted out of poverty in the past six years.

RIOS: They have more money. They have cash transfers, they have better salaries. They have more benefits. And they associate this, of course, with the party that transformed the labor market in this country.

PERALTA: From up here, in the hills of Iztapalapa, you can see the entirety of Mexico City, a metropolis of more than 20 million people. Geronimo Gomez Cruz (ph), who is 79, loves this neighborhood. But for nearly four decades, his house has not had running water. Sometimes when the trucks actually deliver water, it's terrible.

GERONIMO GOMEZ CRUZ: (Non-English language spoken).

PERALTA: It looks like chocolate, he says. You can't even shower with it. He says his whole life, politicians have shown up only during election season, promising change.

GOMEZ CRUZ: (Non-English language spoken).

PERALTA: It's like Santa Claus, he says. They lie. And on Christmas, the toys never arrive. You never see anything.

GOMEZ CRUZ: (Non-English language spoken).

PERALTA: He changes his mind midway through. With this government, it's a little better, he says. They still don't have water, but every two months, he receives about $350, better than any government that came before them.

GOMEZ CRUZ: (Non-English language spoken).

PERALTA: Just enough to eat, he says. Enough to eat. Eyder Peralta, NPR News, Mexico City. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Eyder Peralta is NPR's East Africa correspondent based in Nairobi, Kenya.