MEXICO CITY — Mexico's upcoming general elections bring to mind the words of David Konzevik, an economist from the other end of the Americas. "Anyone who thinks things can't get worse," the Argentine intellectual famously quipped, "doesn't know the history of Argentina."

Indeed, in 1913, Argentina had the world's 10th highest per capita GDP. Today it ranks 57th. The reason is decades of bad economic policies ostensibly aimed at solving problems of corruption, welfare and poverty. Instead of advancing, the country has regressed, and Argentines have stumbled from one crisis to another over a century. So when people here say, "things couldn't get any worse," I think about Argentina and say to myself that yes, things actually can get much worse — and fast. Just ask people in oil-rich Venezuela who are living in a state of misery and desperation amid the worst social and political crisis of their country's history.

Sunday's elections are a crossroads for Mexico, and as voters contemplate their choices, there are three distinct dynamics at play. First, this is a dispute between the future and the past. Second, it's a referendum of sorts on the outgoing Enrique Peña Nieto administration, and its perception as massively corrupt. And third, the contest hinges on the various candidates themselves, with their respective virtues and flaws.

In the most basic sense, this is an election about two distinct visions and platforms, represented on the one hand by conservative Ricardo Anaya and the government-backed José Antonio Meade, and on the other by Andrés Manuel López Obrador, or AMLO, as he's known.

The first two candidates, each with his specific characteristics and abilities, share future-oriented ideas about overhauling the country by following the example of more successful countries. AMLO, in contrast, touts a return to Mexico's origins — back to before it tried to modernize, when the government imposed its vision on society, the president was all-powerful, and things just worked better, or so the candidate believes.

This is a dispute between the future and the past.

AMLO's proposition is based on the principle that things were fine before the 1980s, when governments began the liberal reforms that, in his opinion, ruined the country's natural development. His model is certainly appealing. But it doesn't resolve the country's current problems of poverty, inequality and lack of growth.

Regardless of how viable the candidates' various proposals really are, this election is about two radically divergent ways of reading the world, about broad directions rather than specific policies. The fundamental question being posed is this: Should Mexico advance, or return to the past?

A key factor in how people answer that question is the outgoing Peña Nieto administration, essentially for its shortcomings but even more for its distance from the daily reality of ordinary people. Its electoral propaganda — which basically tells Mexicans to stop complaining — and countrywide tours have shown an utter inability to grasp people's anger over corruption and the government's apparent indifference to the lives of everyday citizens.


Presidential candidate AMLO at a rally on June 27 — Photo: Valente Rosas

In this sense, anger with Peña Nieto is competing with fears of a return to the past with AMLO. Disgust with the president is real. Meade's fate, therefore, depends on being seen as his own man. Anaya's fate depends on being able to convince people he really can run a government. And each needs to distinguish himself from the other while showing voters that they're both forward-thinking.

The individual strengths of the candidates also matter. Anaya has been a successful legislator and is heading a coalition of political forces that might have seemed inconceivable a short while back. His stamina and grit have taken him to where he is. López Obrador, who has been in politics for decades, was a successful mayor of Mexico City and has remained relevant for his personal integrity and honesty, but also by raising pertinent issues like poverty and inequality. Meade, who has been a senior official for decades, is more familiar than anyone with the workings of bureaucracy, and has a clear and structured vision of challenges facing the country.

We Mexicans must now choose between radically divergent visions of government and personalities with differing histories and skills. Will our decision and choice resolve our problems? Or will we follow the example of Argentina and keep digging ourselves a deeper and deeper hole?

See more from Opinion / Analysis here