Mexico’s Presidential Election Surprises and Challenges

Diana Villiers Negroponte
Diana Villiers Negroponte Former Brookings Expert, Public Policy Scholar - Woodrow Wilson Center

July 20, 2012

First, the pollsters were consistently inaccurate, overestimating Enrique Peña Nieto and the Institutional Revolutionary Party’s (PRI)’s victory significantly and underestimating Andrés Manuel Lópes Obrador and the Party of the Democratic Revolution’s (PRD) loss. From the independent Reforma newspaper to Obrador’s own poll, the surveys predicted a 10-12% lead for the PRI. When official results came in, Peña Nieto had won easily, but with an advantage of about 7%. What went wrong?

In this Mexican election, polls shaped the election, but failed to reflect reality. Consequently, the polling industry is suffering an existential crisis. Influential voices claim that the industry has lost legitimacy. In defense of its actions, the pollsters claim three reasons: First, the new electoral rules required that all seven political parties be named on the ballot, even though there were only four presidential contenders. Although pollsters captured those voting for the three major parties, they failed to capture those who voted for coalitions or groups of parties. With the PRD having a majority of leftist coalition partners, the polls underestimated support for this party.

Second, approximately 17 to 20 percent of Mexican voters were undecided from the beginning of the campaign and remained so until the end. Some were genuinely waiting to make up their mind in the voting booth, but many sympathizers of the Leftist rhetoric of López Obrador were unwilling to share their preference for fear that this might impact their employment or federal benefits. After all, Peña Nieto of the PRI became the establishment candidate even before the presidential campaign began. To vote against him might incur negative reactions.

Third, the pollsters underestimated the impact of vote buying. Accusations abound that the PRI sought to influence voting behavior through the offer of gift certificates to major supermarket chains. López Obrador, told his followers to take the alleged “gift” and then vote their conscience. A larger number of voters did just that.

Having noted the widespread distribution of gift cards, the PRD is now bringing a criminal complaint of vote buying. This will be adjudicated by the Electoral Office of the Attorney General (FEPADE), not the Federal Electoral Court and the standard of evidence is very high. The plaintiff must demonstrate that were it not for the vote buying, 3 million votes would not have been cast for the PRI. This case must be decided by August 31.

More recently, López Obrador brought another case against Peña Nieto, this time for money laundering, a case which the Electoral Court will adjudicate before a September 5 deadline. Both cases challenge the outcome of the presidential election, but no Mexican seriously believes that there will be a change of leader. However, such challenges will delay any proposed reforms, and could undermine the PRI’s capacity to gain coalition partners.

The puzzling question is why Josefina Vázquez Mota, the National Action Party (PAN) candidate, did so badly. The first explanation is that she failed to distinguish herself sufficiently from the PAN President Felipe Calderón. His “war against drugs” has left the general population feeling less safe and more vulnerable to extortion, kidnapping and robbery. Also, the Mexican economy had not recovered sufficiently from the dog days of 2009 to provide optimism for future growth. Second, several mistakes during her campaign became emblematic of a poorly-run operation. One fainting spell reverberated on the candidate and she failed to shake off the image of weakness. Third, Mexicans clearly voted for change; alternation was needed after twelve years of PAN rule. The question is whether they will get real change or more of the same with another party in power.

Mexico needs to modernize, reduce inequality, spur competition, improve the quality of its education and rely less on a government petroleum monopoly for its principal source of income. A young PRI candidate, supported by an internationally-educated team of advisers, promises to modernize. Pena Nieto has 100 days to prove that he will be a progressive force and not beholden to the dinosaurs in the party. He has promised to introduce significant changes and present legislative initiatives to a Congress in which he holds, with two smaller parties, a slim majority. This is insufficient to pass constitutional changes, such as opening up the nationalized oil company, PEMEX. Therefore, the PRI will have to make deals with PAN members if it is to make significant changes. With both PRI and PAN supporting the opening of the oil sector, and fiscal and labor reform, this should not be difficult in the first three years of the six year rule. If the PRI succeeds in reforming taxes, labor and energy, it can expect the dinosaurs to fall into line behind Peña Nieto. Also international financiers will increase their investments in Mexico.

In the short term, the legal challenges to the presidential outcome will place a hold on reforms that Peña Nieto might seek to initiate. If, as predicted, the challenges are dismissed, September presents an opportune moment to move forward on key reforms. However, if the evidence provided for one, or other, case is sufficient to prove fraudulent electoral practices, Mexico may enter a protracted political struggle that will delay seriously the reforms necessary to shape the contours of a modern nation.