Mexico City (AFP) – With his slender build and boyish looks, Ricardo Anaya can seem a bit like a teenager who somehow wound up running for president of Mexico.
But the 39-year-old’s rapid political rise was anything but an accident.
Running for a coalition led by his conservative National Action Party (PAN), Anaya has mounted a campaign straight out of Silicon valley, roaming an open stage in wire-rimmed glasses, his shirt open at the collar, and promising to address Mexico’s problems with innovation and ideas.
Known for his sharp intelligence, Anaya got his start in politics at age 17, when he knocked on the door of a local PAN leader in his hometown, Queretaro, and told her he wanted to work for the party.
“He was very young, very resolute and very aware that he wanted to be doing this instead of going to parties,” the politician, Senator Marcela Torres, told AFP.
In characteristically decisive style, Anaya married his childhood sweetheart, Carolina Martinez. They have three children.
By 21, Anaya was running for state legislature, by 33 he was elected to Congress, and by 34 he was speaker of the lower house.
Journalists nicknamed him “the boy wonder” for his rapid rise, ambition, perfectionism and attention to detail.
But he may have risen as far as he is going to go for now.
Though he has spent most of the race in second place, he enters Sunday’s vote trailing the leftist front-runner, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, by more than 20 points in the polls.
– Big ambition –
Despite running a strong campaign and sparkling in the presidential debates, Anaya has struggled to win over voters.
Part of the problem is the baggage of the past.
His party already governed from 2000 to 2012. In an election where voters angry over crime and corruption are looking for change, the PAN can look like a throwback.
Anaya has also been dogged by graft allegations — though he says these have been fabricated by the government. Given the lack of proof or charges against him, many political analysts agree.
But part of Anaya’s problems may also be of his own making.
Critics say he has a Machiavellian thirst for power, visible in the way he sidelined rivals for the his party’s presidential nomination and forged an ideologically messy alliance with the left-wing Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) to boost his chances in the polls.
“Anaya was willing to destroy his party, to undermine it, to split it into multiple parts in order to win the presidential candidacy for himself,” Pamela Starr, a Mexico specialist at the University of Southern California, told AFP.
– ‘Deep antipathy’ –
Agustin Basave, the former PRD leader who cemented the coalition deal with Anaya, summed up the young candidate’s flawed brilliance.
The first time they met, Anaya quoted from memory a long passage from a book Basave wrote. The encounter was a success, and led to the unlikely coalition.
But Anaya “would never win a popularity contest. The other kids sitting behind him in class, the ones who don’t do their homework, don’t like him much,” Basave said.
Among those who reputedly dislike Anaya is outgoing President Enrique Pena Nieto of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI).
Anaya was the president’s intransigent opponent as speaker of Congress, and has followed that up by vowing to investigate Pena Nieto for corruption.
“Pena Nieto hates him. He views him with tremendous, deep antipathy,” said Basave.
That hate-hate relationship may just decide the election.
Instead of the PRI and PAN tacitly teaming up against Lopez Obrador, as in the previous two elections, they have savaged each other this time around — while the veteran leftist’s lead has only surged.