Mexico's ruling party and conservative opposition candidates—locked in a virtual tie in the run up to Sunday's presidential election—are lavishing unprecedented attention on women voters.
Francisco Labastida, candidate for the ruling Revolutionary Institutional Party (PRI), and his opponent Vicente Fox, of the family-values oriented National Action Party (PAN), each have about 40 percent of the vote, according to recent public opinion polls.
In the most competitive race in modern Mexican history, the candidates are vying for crucial support among women, an often neglected majority who comprise 52 percent of registered voters. Both Fox and Labastida promise new "women's institutes" to redress inequality and discrimination at home, work and in the legal system. Meanwhile, a divisive debate over reproductive rights has resurfaced and it remains unclear whether the promises of the election season will yield significant improvements in women's lives.
"It is very possible that the majority of those who abstain from voting will be women," says Raul Trejo Delabre, a Mexican political analyst. "The candidates are trying to mobilize these voters. However, almost all the parties have a paternalistic view of women."
Women have made some inroads into public life since the country began a gradual social transformation in the 1970s. Women head the national party organizations of PRI, which has been in existence since 1929, and the leftist Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD).
And, the PRD's popular Rosario Robles is the acting mayor of Mexico City, where one in every five Mexicans reside. But data from the government's National Statistics and Geography Institute shows that only three of every ten women participate in the workforce.
The country of nearly 98 million remains socially conservative and overwhelming Roman Catholic. While nearly one in five households are headed by women and family sizes are shrinking, government statistics show that "family" is still the main concern for most Mexicans.
Labastida promises economic and political stability as a key to family well-being. He has also publicized Fox's links to the anti-abortion group Pro Vida, portraying his party as ultra-conservative and hostile to women. Labastida and his party have targeted female voters by enlisting the popular, sexy male dance group "Solo para Mujeres" ("For Women Only").
Labastida often campaigns with his wife, a leading expert on pre-Hispanic art who earned advanced academic degrees while raising three children from her first marriage. Better educated than her career bureaucrat husband, Marķa Teresa Uriarte de Labastida is rumored to be his chief strategist.
"She is considered a Mexican Hillary Clinton—very active," said Oscar Gonzalez, president of the Mexican Human Rights Academy.
But, Uriarte has been careful to avoid appearing a power broker, opting instead for a traditional wifely role on the campaign trail.
Meanwhile, Fox, the self-proclaimed "family values" candidate is divorced. If elected, Fox would be the first Mexican president in recent history without a first lady. The former president of Mexico's Coca-Cola operation has campaigned with his two adopted daughters and taken time out to be photographed with his mother.
While Fox, like Labastida, opposes giving women full reproductive freedom, he is more socially liberal than his party. His views on so-called women's issues and his martial status have sometimes put him on the outs with stalwarts within his party, yet bolstered his popularity with other Mexicans.
According to polls conducted by the Mexico City daily "Reforma," Fox closed in on Labastida's lead with women voters by promising to install a diverse government that would extend equal rights to all Mexicans-including women. In "Reforma's" most recent poll conducted in May and published two weeks ago, Fox had 34 percent of women