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Democracy and Its Discontents: Mexico’s 2012 General Elections

24 July 2012

Professor Kevin J. Middlebrook

[Edited text of a panel presentation on the 2012 Mexican Elections, Canning House, London, 10 July 2012]

Any good work of fiction features a compelling plot that builds to a surprising and emotional conclusion.

Even though some elements of contemporary Mexican politics might remind us of the ‘magical realist’ tradition in Latin American literature, by that criterion the 2012 general elections must surely be judged a work of non-fiction. With few exceptions, the campaign itself generated little enthusiasm, and the outcome was widely predicted and uninspiring.

These remarks briefly address three topics: (1) the election results, (2) a profile of the presidential campaign and post-election developments, and (3) the immediate challenges facing Mexico’s new government.

Election Results

Following a recount of ballots from just over half of the 143,000 polling sites, the Federal Electoral Institute (IFE) announced the following results in the presidential election:

  • Enrique Peña Nieto, candidate of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) and the Mexican Ecologist Green Party: 38.2%
  • Andrés Manuel López Obrador, representing the “Progressive Movement” coalition comprised by the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), the Workers’ Party, and Citizen Movement: 31.6%
  • Josefina Vázquez Mota, candidate of the governing National Action Party (PAN): 25.4%
  • Gabriel Cuadri, candidate of the New Alliance Party (PANAL): 2.3%.

In addition, the PRI won three of the six state governorships (Chiapas, Guanajuato, Jalisco, Morelos, Tabasco, Yucatán) up for election, losing to the PRD in Morelos and Tabasco and to the PAN in Guanajuato.

Some pre-election opinion polls had suggested that the PRI would also win absolute majorities in both the federal Chamber of Representatives and the Senate. In the event, it won substantial pluralities in both chambers, but it will be compelled to build cross-party coalitions in order to advance its legislative agenda.

The Campaign and Post-Election Developments

These outcomes were, in the main, not surprising.

Throughout the campaign, Peña Nieto had held a commanding lead in public opinion polls—partly because of his extensive public support, and partly by error. (Indeed, the major polling firms overestimated his actual victory margin by as much as 3-11%.) He was, nevertheless, an extremely telegenic and well-managed candidate, married to a leading telenovela star, who benefited from the favourable publicity generated by his reasonably successful term as governor of the State of México. The State of México includes major portions of Mexico City, which is the country’s leading media market. Throughout his governorship, Peña Nieto had a close—and now highly controversial—relationship with Televisa, the country’s largest free-access television company and a long-term political ally of the PRI.

Peña Nieto was able to keep the heterogeneous PRI united in the run-up to the election, and except for a couple of awkward moments, he ran a smooth and professionally organized campaign. His greatest challenge was a confrontation with students at the Universidad Iberoamericana in mid-May, which gave rise to a large and vociferous anti-PRI social network group known as “#yosoy132” (“I am number 132,” a reference to the 131 students at the Iberoamericana who protested Peña Nieto’s decision to use police forces to repress a protest movement in the town of San Salvador Atenco in 2006). The group protested Peña Nieto’s close association with Televisa, as well as Mexico’s television duopoly and the absence of alternative media channels.

López Obrador (universally known as ‘AMLO’) had also been the PRD’s presidential candidate in 2006, when he lost the election to President Felipe Calderón (2006-12) by a razor-thin margin. Following that election, AMLO protested that he had been the victim of a major fraud, led a two-month sit-down protest in central Mexico City and declared himself Mexico’s ‘legitimate president’. This background is important because, although he managed to maintain control over major factions in the PRD and build his own national grassroots movement (the ‘Movement of National Regeneration’, MORENA), AMLO began the 2012 campaign with very high ‘political negatives’. He sought to counteract this deficit by renouncing confrontational rhetoric—explicitly emulating Brazil’s Luis Inacio Lula da Silva by declaring himself the candidate of ‘peace and love’ (literally) and promising to found una república amorosa (“a loving republic”).

AMLO generally ran an effective campaign, and his final share of the vote was double the share of opinion poll preferences he garnered at its beginning. However, in early June, following the publication of an opinion poll showing him nearly tied with Peña Nieto, AMLO resumed his harsh attacks on Mexico’s vested interests—and his polling numbers subsequently slacked.

Perhaps the greatest surprise of the campaign was the lacklustre performance of Vázquez Mota, the first female candidate for a major national party. Her campaign slogan—‘Josefina, diferente’—emphasized this fact and hinted, though not very successfully, that she would pursue policies different than those of President Calderón. However, her campaign was disorganized and unfocused, and voters appeared not to respond to her persistent attacks on the PRD and especially the PRI. Her final share of the vote was conspicuously below what her poll ratings indicated at the beginning of the campaign.

The fourth presidential candidate, Gabriel Cuadri, never had any chance of winning the election. However, he did attract enough votes to preserve the official registry of the PANAL, the political vehicle of Elba Esther Gordillo, ‘president for life’ (presidenta vitalicia) of the powerful National Union of Education Workers.

Voting on July 1 took place without major problems, and turnout was a comparatively high 63.3%. Both Vázquez Mota and Cuadri conceded defeat on election eve. It is worth noting that no major figure on the Left criticized the electoral process on the day; indeed, Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas, a founder of the PRD, observed that the election had proceeded smoothly. However, within 48 hours AMLO began to characterize a vote for the PRI as a vote for ‘corruption’. He subsequently claimed that the election was ‘totally falsified’ and petitioned the Electoral Tribunal of the Federal Judicial Branch to annul the presidential election.

AMLO’s supporters have found evidence of apparent ballot-box stuffing in some locations, but their principal criticisms focus on television coverage that ostensibly favoured Peña Nieto and the PRI’s distribution of material goods (including pre-paid shopping cards from Soriana, the Mexican equivalent of Tesco) to induce voters to support its candidates.

There is no doubt that the PRI spent lavishly on campaign events and material inducements. However, it must be said that all the major parties engaged in similar behaviour, to the best of their resources and abilities. Whether there was illegal campaign spending will no doubt be the focus of extensive investigation; after the 2000 election, the IFE imposed extremely heavy fines on both the losing PRI and the winning PAN for major campaign spending violations. Thus, it would be no surprise at all if similar violations occurred this year. What is not clear is whether any such violations were substantial enough to alter the outcome of an election which Peña Nieto won by approximately 3.3 million votes. What is more certain is that the PRI enjoyed enormous organizational advantages (and probably spending advantages as well) based on the fact that it controlled 20 of Mexico’s 31 states, in a system in which state governors have great discretion over the use of public resources.

Future Challenges

All the major parties face significant challenges in the months ahead.

The PAN is badly in disarray following its worst presidential showing since 1988. Already there are mutual recriminations concerning whether Vázquez Mota, Calderón or other party leaders bear principal responsibility for the disaster.

The PRD made a strong showing overall, but it is an extremely fractious party. There will undoubtedly be tensions between the more moderate wing represented the current and future governors of the Federal District (Marcelo Ebrard and Gabriel Mancera, respectively) and more radical groups surrounding López Obrador. How the party eventually positions itself may depend on how confrontational AMLO proves to be in the coming weeks. It is unlikely that he will again lead an occupation of central Mexico City. There is, however, a strong political logic behind claiming that he was once again the victim of fraud: as a two-time losing candidate, he might well be forced to the partisan sidelines, but as a political victim, he can still lay claim to the PRD’s leadership.

For Peña Nieto, three major challenges loom.

First, he must find ways to diminish the drug trafficking-related violence that has wracked Mexico since Calderón initiated his ‘war’ on organized crime in late 2006. Since then, some 55,000 people have died in drug-related violence, and most opinion polls identify it as the country’s most urgent problem. The issue was remarkably absent from the presidential campaign—probably because none of the candidates had a clear alternate strategy. Peña Nieto will be pressed to find ways to reduce the violence and gradually limit the armed forces’ direct involvement in the fight against organized crime, without alienating the United States—which has found the Calderón administration to be a rather compliant ally in a struggle fueled by US consumption of illegal drugs and ample access to high-powered firearms smuggled from the United states.

Second, Peña Nieto will need to follow through on his promise to provide effective government to address Mexico’s most serious problems. He has suggested that he will undertake significant tax reforms and expand private investment in the petroleum industry, in order to reverse declining oil production. Legislative success will be elusive unless he is able to forge and sustain political coalitions across party lines. Elements of the PAN may be his most reliable legislative allies, although the PAN itself is likely to be internally divided for some time to come.

And third, Peña Nieto will need to make good on his public pledge that his victory does not represent a return of the ‘old PRI’, a party that ruled Mexico for 70 years until its defeat in the 2000 presidential election. To date, he could quite reasonably be characterized as the ‘new face of the old PRI’. After all, he hails from Atlacomulco in the State of México, and it was the founder of the Grupo Atlacomulco (Carlos Hank González) who coined the memorable phrase ‘A politician who is poor is a poor politician’ (“Un político pobre es un pobre político”). He rose through the ranks of the PRI with the support of some of its most retrograde old guard, and these same elements—including many state governors, who have for the past decade operated as de facto viceroys in state and national politics—mobilized very effectively to carry him into office. These forces will no doubt exercise great pressure to restore as much as possible of the ancien régime. That is a recipe for persistent conflict in a Mexico in which power is now much more deconcentrated. The first months of the Peña Nieto administration will, therefore, certainly be a time of testing.