Flu Takes Political Toll on Mexico's Calderón

"All men are liars, politicians even more so," said Martin Castellanos, a resident of Mexico City who was walking through the Zócalo, or main square, earlier this week. The normally bustling space was nearly deserted on account of flu fears and government advice to stay inside this past weekend. "They manage information however they like."

Many Mexicans apparently share Castellanos's distrust of the government of President Felipe Calderón.  Since day one of the flu outbreak, the public has been hypercritical of the administration's handling of the flu crisis, which for more than a week left a normally teeming metropolitan area of more than 20 million people looking as spookily empty as a set from an M. Night Shyamalan movie. Now, as the effects of A(H1N1), as the virus is called, begin to taper off, his National Action Party, or PAN, is beginning to feel the political repercussions.

Critics have roundly attacked the government for its handling of the flu crisis. Earlier this week a group of opposition lawmakers said the Calderón administration should be "ashamed" for manipulating the flu numbers and trying to profit from the scare.  Some left-wing columnists have compared him to Miguel de la Madrid, the president who, in the midst of the devastating 1985 Mexico City earthquake, left the public to fend for itself.  Calderón is guilty of "using the outbreak to consolidate his power," said Mexico City-based law expert and analyst John Ackerman.

Criticism is nothing new for the administration. Since taking power in late 2006, it has weathered accusations of being reactionary (security experts have argued that drug traffickers are always a few steps ahead of the Army) and poor at planning (Calderón never offered concrete proposals for creating the hundreds of thousands of new jobs each year he promised during his campaign). That Calderón has on several occasions brought his most loyal cronies into his cabinet has done little to stem accusations of bad governance.

As the July 5 midterm elections grow nearer, the opposition Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, which ruled Mexico with a vicelike grip for 71 years until 2000, is touting itself as a party that knows how to govern and get things done.  Despite Calderón's  popularity—his approval rating hovers around 65 percent—the PAN is set to take a beating. It trails the PRI by at least 5 percent in most polls. If  the administration doesn't shake the impression that it's bungled the flu crisis—or counter rumors that it manufactured it—the numbers could swing even more sharply in the PRI's direction. The PRI—which blocked the previous administration's attempts at reforms in Congress between 2000 and 2006—could wind up with a majority in the lower house after the elections, which could be a blow to Calderón's reform agenda.

So far the administration's performance hasn't helped. Its health secretary first dithered on terminology, calling the flu outbreak an epidemic, then backtracked in the same sentence. At first the official case count soared; then it plummeted as soon as more-reliable international experts and testing methods arrived. The government shut Mexico City down, but kept the subways open, much to the bemusement of locals. "They should have closed the Metro, and cut down on vehicle traffic, too," says taxi driver Mariano Texis Texis. Instead, the government chose to shutter theaters, bars and restaurants.

Calderón, for his part, has appeared aloof. For four days last week, he failed to appear in public, prompting one newspaper cartoonist to depict Mexico as a sinking ship and ask, "Where is the captain?" Then on May 5, the commemoration of the Mexican defeat of the French at the Battle of Puebla, Calderón issued a fervent battle cry: "Today Mexico faces another threat, this time of a different type. Mexico has been on the battlefront, and here we have defended all humanity from the spreading of this virus."

The Mexican public, though, tends to be cynical about such declarations, perhaps because they've heard it before.  When the death toll from drug-related violence began to soar in 2008, Calderón insisted the drug cartels were on the defensive. When the economy plunged late last year, they repeatedly heard that everything would be OK. But drug-related violence is still up (not even the flu could stop the killings) and the economy is still down.

Ironically, the PAN could get a fillip from a diplomatic tussle. China's quarantine of dozens of Mexican nationals over flu fears has led the administration to appeal to the United Nations and other bodies. When a plane that was sent to China to pick up the apparently mistreated Mexicans touched down in Mexico City on Wednesday, first lady Margarita Zavala was on hand to greet it. Calderón has played the xenophobia card before—most notably in his trips to the United States, where he's called attention to the poor treatment of Mexicans. Some analysts think the China spat could keep his poll numbers up and even bolster the party's prospects. "He has connected with the people's hypernationalistic sensitivities," says George Grayson, a longtime Mexico expert at the College of William & Mary in Virginia.

Distrust toward the government, however, is a big obstacle to overcome. Ninety-four percent of Mexicans surveyed in a poll this week don't know anyone who has been infected with the new strain of flu, leading many people to conclude that the outbreak was a concoction by the government to distract attention from the economy or the drug war. Whether Calderón can treat this fever may determine his ability to govern for the second half of his term.

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