MEXICO CITY — Election Day in Mexico is Sunday. And after all this buzz about a stronger democracy, a more legitimate election infrastructure, people here still use air quotes around the word “democracy” in conversation.

Late Tuesday in this city’s version of Los Feliz, the Condesa district, Mariana, a young woman at my table in a bright cantina, started talking about how she had been chosen, sort of like jury duty, to be a “polling-place president” on Sunday. This means she has endured weeks of training sessions on how to be a proper Election Day official. It’s all part of the Federal Electoral Institute’s (IFE) efforts to paint the 2006 elections as the most secure yet. This is a PR response to the widespread distrust of government institutions and the political process that is still pervasive in 21st-century Mexico. “We’re part of the First World now,” Mariana said a little mockingly.

As of Wednesday night, the Mexican presidential campaign officially ended. Front-runner Andrés Manuel López Obrador, of the center-left PRD party, finished his run with another massive rally at the city’s main square, the Zocalo. The conservative PAN party’s Felipe Calderón, the candidate of Mexico’s jittery upper classes, finished with his own rally in Mexico’s “second city,” Guadalajara.

Now, voters get three days of well-deserved breathing time. It’s a prescription written into federal electoral law that in the 2006 presidential race is especially welcome. This has been one of the most brutal, topsy-turvy, expensive and downright American campaigns in the history of this nascent democracy. At this point, with the campaign’s ’round-the-clock rumor mill and excessive attack ads, the whole thing is giving people here “hueva” (crude slang for tedium or irritation).

The tight three-way race includes trailing Roberto Madrazo of the old-guard PRI. Voters must also contend with two minor-party candidates and a personally financed write-in candidate. Toss in the “Other Campaign” of enigmatic Zapatista leader Subcomandante Marcos, the masked intellectual who wants to challenge Mexico’s political institutions on a fundamental level, and you have a full-scale political circus, Mexican-style. (A huge turning point in the campaign was when López Obrador had a sit-down interview with a popular morning-show host, Brozo, a clown. The candidate promptly surged in the polls after that.)

Why does this matter to you in Los Angeles? It’s a valid question. Outside of National Public Radio and the major daily newspapers, there’s been little attention paid in the U.S. to Sunday’s election. American disinterest in this race makes no sense. Progressives have barely been looking south, despite the fact that López Obrador is the kind of truly socially conscious populist that U.S. lefties — never mind the Democrats — could only dream of one day fielding for president.

Few countries are as intertwined with the United States as Mexico. This is a function of both geography and immigration, but mostly of economics. The U.S. is Mexico’s largest trading partner, and Mexico is the U.S.’s second-largest trading partner. Trade between the two countries reached nearly $300 billion in 2005.

For months, the candidates’ competing economic plans have been debated by analysts. The subtext, of course, is that there is little chance for any radical shift in the economic infrastructure of Mexico with either of the major parties. It comes down to approach and style, as all the candidates say they want to address the underlying reasons why so many able Mexican men risk their lives going to “el norte” for jobs, leaving behind whole towns of husbandless women.

Calderón wants to keep going with the free-market policies of Vicente Fox, the outgoing PAN president. And López Obrador, an anticapitalist at heart, wants to promote huge public-works projects — reforestation, new industrial rail lines — to generate jobs. Plus, he wants to nationalize the pension plan he enacted as mayor of Mexico City: cash allowances for the poor and elderly starting at age 70, and at age 65 for Mexicans of Indian heritage.

MEANWHILE, WASHINGTON HAS KEPT officially silent, aware that nothing stokes nationalism in the hearts of Mexicans on both sides of the border more than the faintest suggestion of American meddling in Mexican affairs. It’s commonly held, though, that the U.S. worries López Obrador’s economic policies will spell deficits or worse. Calderón’s ads have put it bluntly: López Obrador is a “danger to Mexico,” cut from the mold of Hugo Chávez, the hardcore populist president of Venezuela.

López Obrador has been responding forcefully yet carefully. In an interview with the large daily El Universal on Monday, he promised to enact an economic plan that is “technical, responsible, and non-ideological.” He also promised not to take to the streets with fiery demonstrations if he loses — unless it is apparent the election was stolen. It’s a point not to be taken lightly in this race. López Obrador is the political equivalent of a street fighter, and his supporters are always ready for a brawl. Given Mexico’s embarrassing track record on the matter of clean elections, fraud is not outside the realm of possibility, even in today’s modern, IFE-run race.

Last year, when the federal government attempted to disqualify López Obrador on a technicality, hundreds of thousands of his supporters filled the Zocalo in one of the largest demonstrations in recent Mexican history. The Fox government backed down. Yet people I’ve spoken with since arriving here late Monday seem convinced there won’t be any major unrest come Sunday. The front-runner appears to have a comfortable enough lead to win; even a recent Wall Street Journal survey agrees.

José Luis Reyna, a political sociologist at the prestigious Colegio de Mexico, made a simple prediction from his campus office. On the basis of all available polls, he said, it’s López Obrador. But all the hype predicting victory for López Obrador could be for naught. Like Fox before him, López Obrador is likely to face a deeply partisan Congress. Fox paid the price. His term was characterized by constant sniping with Congress over his proposed reforms. In such a political landscape, Reyna said, “consensus is stalled, there is no flow.”

Has democracy finally risen in contemporary Mexico? “We haven’t consolidated ourselves,” Reyna said. “There’s a knot, you could say, a great knot that prevents real change.”

Whatever happens Sunday, the business of urban life will resume as normal in one of the world’s most hypermodern cities. With so many foreign journalists descending upon Mexico suddenly, it’s a wonder some people are still willing to admit where the country’s attention is really focused: the World Cup, claro.

LA Weekly