The following is a guest post by Colin Snider of Americas South and North.
While the US media is understandably focused on its own presidential elections this year, they are not the only elections taking place that will have a direct impact on the hemisphere more generally. At the beginning of October, Venezuelans will go to the polls to vote between Hugo Chávez and and Henrique Capriles, who poses the most direct electoral threat to Chávez in some time (though Venezuelan polls make predictions notoriously difficult; one poll last month had Chávez with a 57-23 lead, while another poll in the same month had Capriles with a 47-43 lead).
And of course, Mexico just held national elections to decide on a successor to Felipe Calderón of the National Action Party (PAN). On July 1, around 45 million Mexicans went to the polls to choose between candidates Enrique Peña Nieto of the centrist Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), Andrés Manuel López Obrador of the left-center Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), and Josefina Vázquez Mota of the conservative Partido Acción Nacional, (PAN), the first woman candidate for a major party in Mexican history (although women like Rosario Ybarra ran for smaller parties in the 1980s).
After six years of growing violence under the PAN, which tried to crack down on the drug trade that the PRI was more than willing to look the other way on in the 20th century, Mexicans were looking elsewhere, and, in spite of some pretty painful gaffes, Peña Nieto led the polls from the start of the electoral season late last year. However, as the campaign progressed, real questions over Peña Nieto’s actual substance emerged, even as media reports preferred to focus on his good looks and his wife, a popular soap opera actress. Many Mexicans, particularly university students, regularly took to the streets to protest the process while accusing the media of displaying an obvious bias in favor of Peña Nieto.
Peña Nieto ultimately won the elections, though the election itself was marked by no small amount of social protest and mobilization. Certainly, compared to past elections, campaign violence was relatively slight in part because the dynamics and influence of organized crime on national elections is not as direct and immediate as it is on elections at the state and municipal levels. However, the PRI, hearkening back to its past, used its institutional apparatus to buy votes for Peña Nieto, leading tens of thousands of Mexicans to take to the streets to protest the results and prompting a partial recount of half of the ballots. Nonetheless, in spite of at least some level of voter fraud, Mexico’s electoral authorities upheld Peña Nieto’s victory by a margin of 38% of the vote, with López Obrador getting 32% and Vázquez Mota, 26% (unlike in many other parts of Latin America, there is no run-off system in Mexico; the candidate with the most votes wins, regardless of whether or not s/he achieves 50% of the vote or not).
While this looks like a victory for Peña Nieto and the PRI, if one moves beyond the presidential election, a far murkier picture emerges. López Obrador has once again failed to achieve the presidency in an election that, while still facing serious allegations of voter fraud, was nowhere near as close as the 2006 election, when López Obrador lost by 0.2%. López Obrador has insisted that he once again will challenge the results, but there’s little reason right now to see why he’d be any more successful than in his failed (and far more justified) attempt in 2006. Even if one tosses out the votes that the PRI bought, the PRI still appears to have had enough votes to have defeated López Obrador by a greater margin than in the 2006 election, suggesting it is time for the PRD to move on to a new candidate to try to lead the party to the presidency.
However, as I originally commented here, the PRD as a party showed real strength at the grassroots level, particularly regarding Congressional elections. In addition to winning the Mayorship of Mexico City (something the party has held since the late-1990s), it received more total votes (11.5 million) than any other party in Senate elections, and ultimately won six states in the senator races, doubling the number of senators representing the PRD for the 2012-2018 session. Likewise, the PRD garnered more votes than the PAN or PRI in the elections of the Chamber of Deputies, picking up 70 seats. This all means that while the PRI returned to the presidency, the PRD seems to be a real winner too in terms of expanding its support and gaining a greater voice in the legislature.
This latter fact is particularly important, as it means that the PRI does not enjoy a legislative majority. Indeed, one immediate suggestion of the 2012 election is that, while Mexicans were willing to return to the PRI after 71 years of increasingly corrupt and ineffective government, they are not yet willing to give it complete control (carro completo). For the first ever, a PRI president is going to have to form a coalition with other politicians/parties in Congress in order to get his agenda approved. And it is not yet clear if PAN or PRD politicians are going to help shape policy or form an opposition bloc to the PRI.
All of this – the PRI’s vote-buying suggesting some things haven’t completely changed within the party; the election margin that was closer than many predictions had allowed for; the Congressional split; the revitalized student movement – means that Mexican politics are entering another unique phase for the next six years, and going forward, it is difficult to say what will happen. Obviously, drug violence will continue to be a major issue. Historically, the PRI had looked the other way as cartels strengthened their power in the late-twentieth century. When the PAN under Vicente Fox and especially under Calderón decided to crack down, that is when the violence intensified. Whether the PRI continues PAN policies, finds a new path, or reverts to its old ways will matter. Already, Peña Nieto has indicated it may be a combination of the first two elements: he has announced he is bringing in a top Colombian officer to advise him, and there is already talk of forming elite counterdrug units in Mexico to combat the trade. Whether these policies are implemented and what their impacts will be remain to be seen.
Still, while drug-related violence is the focus in US, it is far from the only issue confronting Peña Nieto and Mexicans. The Mexican economy will continue to matter as much as (or more than) the drug violence to many Mexicans’ daily lives, and as inflation gradually climbs and the global economy becomes increasingly troubled, it will not be a simple task for Peña Nieto to keep the country stable. Likewise, social inequalities in Mexico are already exaggerated and appear to be further increasing and Peña Nieto is not exactly a “man of the people.” Will he and/or Congress be able to (or is even interested in attempting to) address these social inequalities and injustices? Additionally, the issue of indigenous rights continues to be a pressing matter for many peoples and communities throughout Mexico who still do not enjoy full autonomy. And there’s the question of how the Peña Nieto administration will impact oil production via Mexico’s national oil company PEMEX.
All in all, these are questions that remain unanswered. What is clear is that the Mexican electorate has opted to return the PRI to the presidency, but is not yet ready for a PRI-dominated government in all branches of government. Peña Nieto’s need to rely on coalition-building in Congress, combined with the questions over his authenticity as an individual candidate with a strong platform during the campaign and a student movement that has become a major voice in popular mobilizations against the PRI, point to the crossroads at which Mexican politics and society find themselves.