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The Mexican Elections: Do the Candidates Present an Opportunity for Real Change?

Members of the movement "Yosoy132" hold up placards as they take part in a protest outside TV broadcaster Televisa building in Mexico City June 26, 2012. (Reuters/Bernardo Montoya)

On July 1, Mexicans go to the polls to elect a president, congress and nine out of 32 state governors.  The stakes are high.  33 percent of Mexicans recently polled consider crime and violence the most pernicious problems compared to 20 percent who consider the economy and jobs more serious problems.[1] Mexican economic growth is steady, but is faced with problems such as anemic immigration, an unemployment rate hovering around 8.3 percent and underemployment at an estimated 25 percent.  Insecurity leaves citizens fearful of robbery and extortion as well as the threat of homicides.  Femicide is on the rise.

However, the potential for economic growth and containment of the violence exists. The factors holding back the Mexican economy are analyzed and widely circulated. Furthermore, the new federal police are beginning to make an impact with the rate of national homicides declining since November 2011.[2]  Citizens seek change, but they are unsure whether the change should be a return to the stable days of the PRI government. They will choose from among three major candidates of the center (PRI), center-right (PAN) and a complex amalgam of ideas that make up the leftist party (PRD).  A small teacher’s party presents a fourth candidate who currently holds 2-3.5 percent of the projected vote.

Since the fall of 2011, the PRI candidate, Enrique Peña Nieto, has been the man to beat. In nearly every poll, he leads his opponents by approximately 14 percentage points. Born in the small town of Atlacomulco, the birthplace of several prominent Mexicans, he has acquired political support from PRI heavyweights without ever serving in the federal government or working in Mexico City.  Instead, he has chosen the route of a state governor from his home state and enhanced his political appeal by marrying a TV movie star, Angélica Rivera, known to most housewives for her prominent role in tele-novelas.   With a youthful and handsome candidate, the PRI seeks to project an image of change and a willingness to bring down the oligopolistic industries that burden Mexico with higher costs and diminished efficiency.

The party platform focuses on the seven ways to accelerate economic growth and four ways to attain a “results democracy.”[3] However, behind the embrace of change lies troubling questions.  If the PRI wins, will the younger generation of change-makers wield greater influence than the PRI dinosaurs who are reputed to have kept the nation stable and secure throughout the latter half of the 20th century?  Will the new president have sufficient clout within a newly elected congress to amend the Mexican constitution and open the energy sector to private investment?; What shifts in security strategy will be introduced to reduce extortion, robbery and kidnapping?; How might the PRI resist the influence of the oligopolists in cellular phones, cement, and television?; And, is the party prepared to confront the teacher’s union and its grip on public education in Mexico?  Putting aside the rhetoric, will this be a transformational PRI, or will it succumb to the stability and rigidities of olden times?

At some distance behind Enrique Peña Nieto, is the leader of the PRD, a political party made famous by President Lázaro Cárdenas who nationalized the petroleum industry in 1938.  Andrés Manuel López Obrador was the PRD candidate who lost the 2006 presidential elections by 0.56 percent and he is convinced that the election was stolen from him.  Since that time, López Obrador has toured the nation, visiting every municipality and listening to people’s complaints.  He has surrounded himself with technocrats and conservative business leaders to create an amalgam of socialist principles and pragmatic realists.  Under his leadership, the PRD will spread wealth through taxation, break up the oligopolies, increase investment in PEMEX, the nationalized petroleum company and confront the teacher’s union and its longtime doyenne, Elba Esther Gordillo Morales.

In third place is the party of the current administration, the center-right PAN. Its leader is Mexico’s first female presidential candidate. Josefina Vázquez Mota is the former minister of both Education and Social Development.  In government, she is known as articulate, smart and fearless, however, on the campaign trail a series of mistakes have overridden her message of change.  Whereas Peña Nieto has made plenty of mistakes that have been largely shrugged off, Vázquez Mota’s mistakes have become emblematic of her campaign.

The big unknown in the competition between the PRI and the PRD is the number of voters who refuse to declare their vote to pollsters.   Constantly, over the last three months of campaigning 14 – 20 percent of those surveyed have responded that they are still undecided.  There are three possible explanations for this silence: a genuine uncertainty and preference to declare their vote only on election day; a fear of announcing an opinion that contravenes the inevitable expectation of a PRI victory; or a preference for the PRD candidate and pursuit of a “stay quiet” policy until the ballot box is opened.  López Obrador and his followers are counting on this silent community.  The PRD has also warned its followers to be on the lookout for standard Mexican election practices, namely the spread of cash, beer and food in exchange for votes.

Does any of this matter to the United States?   We are embroiled in our own election campaign and less concerned about what happens to our neighbor to the south.  We may be comforted by the fact that all three major candidates and their campaign chiefs have visited Washington several times and reiterated their commitment to a strong bilateral relationship.  Despite the widespread belief that the U.S. prefers to see the “drug war” fought on Mexican soil than north of the border, relations with the U.S. are not a campaign issue.  However, we might ask whether the close and deep relationship that runs from cabinet ministers to junior officials on security, trade, environmental and border issues will continue despite the election outcome. López Obrador has stated that he will prioritize changes within Mexico; a statement that infers secondary treatment with the northern neighbor. But the reality is that both governments have an interest in continuing the exchange of information and building on trusted coordination. Despite the gross mistakes of the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives in its gun running operation, “Fast & Furious”, and despite the current Mexican president’s frequent speeches in which he blames the United States for buying illicit drugs and selling the weapons, coordination between both capitals has never been so close.

The PRD’s continuation of the nationalized energy policy presents a disappointment, but not a tragedy.  Dismantling the new federal police in preference for a more prominent state and municipal police presents a higher risk of incompetence and corruption. López Obrador is more likely to govern in the style of Brazilian Inácio Lula de Silva than Venezuelan, Hugo Chávez.  Washington would work with him.

The PRI’s victory raises the concern on whether the party stalwarts will return to traditional authoritarian policies. However, in the 12 years since the PRI lost the presidency, Mexico has changed.  There is now an independent press, a more autonomous congress and a growing middle class that is beginning to express its opinions through civil society.  The mentality of patronage is slipping away in the face of more individualistic and liberated citizens. Whomever they vote for next Sunday, Mexicans deserve effective change that makes them safer and more prosperous.


[2]The drug related homicide rate throughout Mexico was 4,998 people between January and March 31, 2012.  This compares to 5,377 in the same period in 2011. Source: Secretaria Genaro Garcia Luna to author, May 30, 2012.

[3] México, la gran esperanza.  Un Estado Eficaz para una democracia de resultados, Mexico City, April 2012.

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