Mexico presidential election campaign update

Nonplussed electorate
Mexican voter

A few things have changed since our last discussion of the Mexican presidential campaign, so here is an update on where we stand in mid-April.

To recap the basics, elections will be held in Mexico on July 1, 2012 for president and mayor of Mexico City, as well as various governorships and Congressional, state and local posts.  Each of the three principal political parties has registered its candidate for the presidency, as follows:

Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI): Enrique Peña Nieto

Partido Acción Nacional (PAN): Josefina Vázquez Mota

Partido de la Revolución Democrática (PRD): Andrés Manuel López Obrador

Right vs. Left is often in the eye of the beholder, particularly in the case of the PRI, which is both a member of the Socialist International and the party that brought Mexico into the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).  Conventional analysis would probably cast the PAN as the party of the right, the PRI in the center, and the PRD on the left.  For the purposes of the current campaign, we should note that both Peña Nieto and Vázquez Mota have expressed support for considering increased private sector participation in state-run oil and gas monopoly Pemex.  López Obrador remains staunchly against, consistently referring to any proposal to increase private sector participation in the energy sector as “the privatization of Pemex.”  Peña Nieto somewhat surprisingly has expressed support for some aspects of labor reform and a reduction of the national Congress, while AMLO rejects structural reforms favored by the business community.  Crime and the drug wars are perhaps the most pressing issue on the mind of the electorate.  While the candidates are loathe to endorse the current administration’s unpopular militarization policy, Peña Nieto and Vázquez Mota have focused their comments on strengthening law enforcement, while AMLO has emphasized education and poverty reduction as the means to attack the roots of crime.

The PAN has held the presidency since 2000, but is now suffering the effects of nationwide anxiety over the wave of violence brought on by warring drug trafficking cartels and the current administration’s campaign against them.  The PRI – which held the presidency for over 70 years before the PAN took over 12 years ago – is keen to take advantage of the current discontent to return to power.  In this context, Peña Nieto has been the conventional favorite to win since the pre-campaigns began coalescing last year.  With about three months remaining before the election, he holds a formidable lead in the polls.  A Milenio GEA/ISA poll published April 16 had Peña Nieto capturing 52.2% of voter preference, with Vázquez Mota at 28.5% and López Obrador at 18%.

Adding to the political theater, a fourth candidate is also campaigning for the presidential election: Gabriel Quadri, on the Partido Nueva Alianza (Panal) ticket.  Quadri was unexpectedly launched as a last-minute candidate by the Panal when the party’s negotiations to support the PRI via an electoral alliance fell through.  The Panal is widely considered to be the personal political party of Elba Esther Gordillo, the nefarious leader of the national teachers union, SNTE.  Gordillo, a former General Secretary of the PRI, played kingmaker in the previous presidential election by throwing the union’s support behind Felipe Calderón of the PAN.  In advance of the 2012 election, with the PRI leading in early polling, Gordillo sought to move her party’s support back to the PRI, however a number of PRI figures and local organizations balked at the Panal’s steep demands, and the PRI rejected the alliance shortly before the deadline to officially register candidates.  Suddenly facing the prospect of losing its registration (and, more importantly, federal funding) if it fails to garner at least 2% of the vote in the national election, the Panal scrambled for a candidate to run and found a willing volunteer in Quadri.  An environmentalist who has held various environmentally related posts in the public and private sectors, Quadri has been subject to withering criticism for serving as stooge for the Darth Vader-esque Gordillo.  He and the Panal are currently polling a distant fourth in the presidential campaign.

Each of the three leading candidates has been ill served by some of his or her own actions.  Peña Nieto was first to face ridicule when he was stumped when asked by a reporter during a book fair to name three books that had influenced him.   His inability to even come up with the names of three books was the source of nationwide hilarity for days, and he was savaged in social media.  The affair was made worse when his daughter took to Twitter to lash back at his detractors, slagging them in pejorative social class terms.  The candidate’s team implemented fairly effective damage control, however, and has largely avoided major bungles since.

The campaign of the PAN’s Josefina Vázquez Mota has been anything but well managed.  Vázquez Mota, who held the cabinet portfolios of Social Development and Education during the PAN’s two administrations, looked strong as she out-maneuvered two male rivals for the party nomination last Fall.  During the less rigorous pre-campaign period she steadily gained in popularity, playing on her strong female qualities, traditional family values and the intriguing prospect of becoming Mexico’s first woman president.  When the official campaigns launched on March 30, however, Vázquez Mota’s campaign came off the rails from the start.  Plagued by disastrous appearances, misstatements and apparent health problems, she is currently “re-launching” her campaign under new management as her poll numbers falter.  With seemingly tepid support from her own party and fading popular enthusiasm, observers are now beginning to question her mantle as the strongest potential challenger to Peña Nieto.

The beneficiary of Vázquez Mota’s meltdown has been the candidate of a coalition of left wing parties headed by the PRD, Andrés Manuel López Obrador.  Commonly referred to as AMLO, the former Mayor of Mexico City has emerged this year as a fascinating case of personal re-branding.  AMLO ran for president in 2006 and led much of the race until his support was worn down by a business-led scare campaign against him, in addition to his own erratic behavior and paranoid ranting.  The election resulted in an approximate tie and victory was awarded to Felipe Calderón by a PAN-favoring Federal Electoral Institute (IFE).  AMLO subsequently went bananas, launching a protest that paralyzed the center of the capital for months and convoking an imaginary parallel government from among his kookiest followers.  Only missing were the paper crown and juggling bears, and in the minds of many of even his own followers, the charade ultimately suggested that maybe the sinister scare campaign had been right after all.

But AMLO’s had six years to think about what went wrong last time out. The image of the 2006 AMLO as a paranoid conspiracy theorist hearing scary voices in his head has now been replaced by a jovial moderate calling on Mexicans to come together in a “Loving Republic” (for real, it’s one of his slogans).  Most striking has been his determined effort to win over the business sector, his sworn enemy in 2006, when today’s images of AMLO embracing captains of industry would have been unthinkable.  Among the changes to his marketing strategy, perhaps the shrewdest has been to maintain a relatively low profile and keep the spontaneous outbursts to a minimum, which has allowed the media to focus on the missteps of his rivals.

Despite AMLO’s apparently improved strategy, if the polls are to be believed, it appears at this juncture that the odds do not favor either the PAN or the PRD overcoming the PRI’s lead by July 1.  A pair of presidential debates has been scheduled for May and June, however, and it will be interesting to see if the forum can provide a game-changing opportunity for any of the candidates.  With Peña Nieto and Vázquez Mota already showing a talent for regrettable utterances, the debates could be a chance for the garrulous López Obrador to leapfrog out of third place.

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