Mexico, better the devil you know

Patricio Navia

Buenos Aires Herald, June 2, 2015


The upcoming midterm elections in Mexico on June 7 will likely be a blow to President Enrique Peña Nieto, but the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) will receive a far weaker punishment from voters because the alternatives offered by the right-wing National Action Party (PAN) and the two leftwing parties — the Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD) and National Regeneration Movement (MORENA) — have failed to capture the imagination of Mexicans, who are for the most part disappointed with the way the president and the PRI have ruled for the past two-and-a-half years.


In 2012, the young, telegenic Peña Nieto received 39.2 percent of the vote, becoming the first PRI candidate to win the presidency since 1994. Mexicans chose to oust the conservative PAN after 12 years in office with governments led by Vicente Fox and Felipe Calderón. The old PRI, the party that had ruled Mexico from 1934 to 2000, had apparently reinvented itself and, under new leadership, made a successful comeback to win a highly competitive election. A significant amount of Mexicans, disappointed with the ineffectiveness of the PAN’s administrations and concerned over rising levels of crime, were ready to give the PRI a new opportunity.


Peña Nieto’s party returned to power with an ambitious agenda of economic and political reform. A series of bills promising comprehensive energy reform, passed in 2013 and 2014, sought to introduce more competition to the inefficient energy sector and boost productivity in an economy that has lagged behind comparable emerging economies. However, it remains unclear now if the bill will deliver the government’s ambitious promises. Other reforms aimed at introducing more incentives for competition in the telecommunications and other sectors have also not been enough to put Mexico back on a path of sustained growth. Political reform, aimed at fostering competition in the electoral arena and strengthening accountability will be gradually implemented in the coming years but, so far, it has failed to improve the negative perceptions about the way democratic institutions work, which are prevalent among Mexicans.


Peña Nieto also made ending the violence associated with former president Calderón’s “war on drugs” a central theme in his campaign. Though the perception is that violence has declined, the reality is that drug-related violence still remains a big problem for Mexico. The disappearance of 43 students in the state of Guerrero in September, 2014, drew together the discontent apparent in Mexican civil society against corrupt practices at government level, the intolerable impunity for crimes committed against civilians and the close links between drug-trafficking, corruption and human rights violations in the country.


The corruption scandals that have also implicated government officials at different levels — including the president’’s wife, whose real estate investments have raised questions about the links between high government officials and private contractors — complete a bleak picture for Mexican democracy.


Array of bad news

With such an array of bad news — and unfulfilled promises — the midterm elections should produce a resounding defeat for Peña Nieto and the PRI. However, polls suggest that Mexicans, though disappointed with the government, will again award the party more votes than the alternatives on the left and right. The PAN has failed to reinvent itself after badly losing the 2012 election. After 12 years in office, the party seems content to remain as the leading opposition party, exerting influence to prevent the PRI from shifting too far to the left. That wing of politics is sharply divided between the traditional PRD and MORENA, a party created by former PRD presidential candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador. After a close second-place finish in 2006 and a less close result in 2012, López Obrador seems obsessed with the presidency. Having resisted calls for renewal within the PRD, he founded his own party. Though the two left-wing parties will probably get a higher combined vote share than the PAN, the divisions within the left will relegate the PRD and Morena to irrelevance, as they are fighting for third place in the election. López Obrador hopes to use the election as a launching pad for a third presidential run in 2018 (when he will be 65 years old). PRD leaders hope to finish ahead of López Obrador’s MORENA as they aspire to bring some renewal to the leadership of the left in Mexico.


Voters will mostly choose to stay away in the midterm election. Turnout is expected to be around 40 percent — less than the 63 perecnt that turned out in the 2012 presidential election, but similar to the 44 percent that voted in the 2009 midterms. About 40 percent of those who do vote are expected to support candidates from the PRI and its allied parties (the Green Party and others). The other 60 percent, who reject the PRI, will be divided among the PAN and PRD, and their respective allies.


The opposition will correctly claim that a majority of Mexicans voted against the PRI, but Peña Nieto’s lawmakers will also believe that the PRI continues to be the party that attracts a plurality of votes in Mexico. The PRI seems to have opted for a simple campaign message: “better the devil you know.”