The Mexican Race for 2012

It could get fun now. Five years after he and 17 million other Mexicans were cheated out of the presidency in the fraud-marred election of 2006, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (AMLO) of the Democratic Party of the Revolution (PRD) has won his party’s candidacy for 2012. The announcement on Tuesday casts a wildcard into what was shaping up to be an easy stroll for the Institutional Party of the Revolution (PRI), Mexico’s former 71-year ruling dynasty.

Although campaigning doesn’t officially get underway until March, the mudslinging, backstabbing and general ruckus has already begun in what will be a crucial and possibly historic election. The likely return to power of the PRI, AMLO’s comeback for the Left, and the so-called “war on organized crime” (formerly the “Drug War”) dominate the agenda ahead of next July.

Then you’re reminded of just how unpredictable it could be. Last Friday morning, Mexico’s Interior Minister Jose Francisco Blake Mora was killed along with seven others in a helicopter crash outside of Mexico City. His predecessor-but-one Juan Camilo Mourino died in a plane crash in 2008. No one knows for sure whether Blake Mora’s death was anything more than an accident but he had a prominent role in the Felipe Calderon administration’s anti-narcotics policy.

Back-to-back National Action Party (PAN) administrations have been known for their tacit support of the Sinaloa Cartel in its turf wars with rivals such as the Zetas.

Here’s a breakdown of how the race for 2012 is shaping up:

The Right

The ultra-conservative PAN has held power since 2000 when electoral reforms saw the Institutional Party of the Revolution (PRI)’s seven-decade dictatorship finally flung out. It was supposed to signify a new era of democracy and transparency in Mexico, but the much-maligned PRI has enjoyed an inevitable resurgence of late, largely due to the PAN’s US-funded war on the drug cartels, which has caused an estimated 50,000 deaths since 2006.

That was the year Felipe Calderon took office, “winning” a very controversial election over leftist candidate and nemesis of the Mexican elite Lopez Obrador. AMLO’s defeat led his mainly working-class supporters to occupy Mexico City’s business district Wall Street-style for two months in protest, pushing the capital to the brink of unrest. While Calderon had “officially” won by .057%, evidence of fraud was widespread.

The PAN faces the almighty challenge of persuading Mexicans it deserves another shot despite soaring unemployment, poverty and violent crime. It remains the US favorite thanks to a commitment to free trade, privatization, and a bi-national security agenda worth billions in defense contracts. A deeply divisive figure at home, Calderon is portrayed in the US media as an indispensable ally, courageously tackling the drug gangs while steering Mexico’s top-heavy economic growth.

Calderon’s own pick for the presidency, Finance Minister Ernesto Cordero has been dubbed the “candidate of continuity”. Cordero is the staunchest defender of the Calderon era, pointing to dubious social policy achievements (often contradicted by the government’s own statistics) and vowing to continue with the US-backed “Drug War”. He’s also struggling for support within his own party which knows that by identifying himself with Calderon he won’t stand a chance.

Just ahead of Cordero is Santiago Creel, a party vet and perpetual nearly man whose father was a founding member of the PAN in the 1930s. Creel ran for Mexico City mayor in 2000 (narrowly losing to left-winger AMLO), was Interior Minister under Calderon’s predecessor Vicente Fox, and lost the party ticket to Calderon in 2006. He’s wisely distanced himself from both former presidents in the build-up, but like Cordero, he trails far behind the frontrunner.

That would be one Josefina Vazquez Mota, an economist and veteran of both administrations. If the cards weren’t stacked so heavily against the PAN, she might become her country’s first female president, despite the feeling by many that “machismo” is too deeply ingrained in the Mexican psyche. As refreshing as her run would be, Vazquez Mota is a fierce social conservative who notably opposes abortion, still de facto illegal in much of Mexico and vehemently denounced by the church.

It’s safe to say that all three “panistas” are neoliberal candidates who talk up education and job creation while supporting the very policies that make social mobility impossible for the poorest sectors of the population. They’re also strongly in tune with Washington’s “War on Drugs”, which means more troops, more death, and a tighter US grip on Mexico’s national security apparatus.

The latest poll by Mexican daily Milenio has Vazquez Mota with 48% of support among party members and voters. Yet she still trails the PRI’s golden boy Enrique Pena Nieto by 30-40 points in the majority of general polls.

The Left 

The bright hope of the Left for the past 23 years, the Democratic Party of the Revolution (PRD) missed by a whisker in the dodgy election of 2006 and has been mired in upheaval ever since. After controversial internal elections in 2007, the party was dragged to the imaginary “center” by a group of opportunists known as the “chuchos” who believed that populist Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (self-proclaimed “legitimate president of Mexico”) had lost the plot.

The fallout was bitter and the big worry was that the feud between AMLO and his rival Marcelo Ebrard would split the progressive vote in 2012 (something that had the PAN and PRI rubbing their hands together with glee). AMLO retained the support of the Workers’ Party (PT) and the Citizens’ Movement (formerly Convergence for Democracy) and would likely have headed a breakaway coalition but it would have meant electoral suicide for both factions.

To its credit, the PRD always vowed it would go with the candidate best-positioned for 2012 and this week finally united behind AMLO with Ebrard directing his campaign. As in past years, the party will lead a coalition (the “Progressive Movement”) comprised of the likes of the PT and the Citizens’ Movement. It’s a revamped version of 2006’s “Coalition for the Good of All” with AMLO’s own civil movement MORENA thrown in.

The PRD was founded in 1989 after a leftist coalition led by Cuauhtemoc Cardenas (son of the legendary Lazaro Cardenas) was scammed out of the presidency in the most blatant act of fraud the PRI ever committed. The party won Mexico City – the beating heart of Mexican progressive politics – in 1997 and hasn’t lost it yet. Cardenas, AMLO and Ebrard have all been mayors of the capital.

Far and away the most outspoken of the “perredistas”, AMLO has been despised by the Mexican elite since his mayoral inauguration in 2000. That day he stood in front of some of the most powerful figures in the country and vowed to govern Mexico City for “the people below”. Right-wingers and Mexico’s gluttonous 1% were mortified.

In reality, AMLO was and remains a moderate social democrat, but his aggressive rhetoric – immensely popular with supporters – was used by the mainly right-wing media to portray him as a radical. AMLO speaks to millions of Mexicans who have been left behind by the neoliberal era, vowing to take on NAFTA, PAN/PRI hegemony, and the corporate media, waving the flag for the country’s 99%.

The trick will be holding the coalition together and convincing voters that the infighting that has dogged the PRD in recent years is a thing of the past. AMLO will benefit immensely from having respected figures like Ebrard and Cardenas in his corner, but will inevitably draw the ire of the country’s elites. As he himself once said, “If in 2006, they lied that my campaign was funded by Hugo Chavez, a man I’ve never met, then in 2012 they will say that I am Bin Laden’s brother.”

The Former Dictatorship 

The oldest of Mexico’s three major parties, the Institutional Party of the Revolution (PRI) lost any revolutionary zeal it might have had c.1940 but clung to power for a further six decades, rigging elections, monopolizing and embezzling everything, and surgically removing anybody – from political rivals to student demonstrators – that got in its way, all with the support of successive US presidents from Truman to Clinton.

For all the policies of Calderon and his predecessor Vicente Fox have widened Mexico’s wealth gap, it was the likes of the PRI’s Miguel de la Madrid and Carlos Salinas de Gortari who kicked off the neoliberal era in the 1980s, planting the seeds for the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1994.

Yet eight months away from the election, the PRI sits comfortably atop the polls. Its revival is largely based on the perception that while their corrupt, repressive, murderous dynasty (“the perfect dictatorship”, according to Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa) was loathed, the “priistas” gave more back than the PAN and kept the drug-trafficking gangs in check. Both of those claims are flimsy, but the party pulls the reins of much of the Mexican media including the hugely influential Televisa/Azteca TV monopoly.

The PRI has declined to announce its candidate until February but everyone knows it will be Enrique Pena Nieto, the former Governor of Mexico State and glamorous new face of a party often referred to as “the dinosaur”. Behind him, however, lurk the same old hacks that scammed Mexico for years. After a wave of anti-PRI articles appeared in the US press this year, Pena Nieto threw Washington a bone by backing the de facto privatization of PEMEX, the state oil monopoly whose nationalization still divides the country’s politicos.

Pena Nieto maintains his lead despite a massive corruption scandal (what else) surrounding party president Humberto Moreira Valdes. While governor of the state of Coahuila, Moreira wracked up US $2.3 billion of debt and falsified congressional documents to pillage even more funds intended for the state’s security budget. Despite being caught red-handed, Moreira’s defense has been to accuse the PAN of smear tactics – just because you’re guilty doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you – and arrogantly refuse to step down.

Everybody knows that “the dinosaur” hasn’t changed its spots and that there’s always a price to pay with the PRI, but it only emphasizes how far the PAN’s star has fallen that the era of “the perfect dictatorship” is looked back on with relative nostalgia.

The “Narco” Vote 

Crucial to everything will be how the country goes about ending the decade-long bloodbath between warring drug gangs, the hottest issue among Mexicans going to the polls. It’s an open secret that the PRI turned a blind eye to drug-trafficking in the 1980s and ‘90s when Mexico became a transit point for Colombian cocaine, yet it was also a period of relative peace and security. In a stunning display of arrogance, a former PRI governor recently bragged to a university audience that in the good ol’ days the “narcos” had been in the government’s pocket and not the other way around.

But the game has changed since then. In the 2000s, a new generation of drug lords began employing paramilitary wings in response to the Fox and Calderon-era/US-backed crackdown. An outfit such as the Zetas, currently the most notorious of Mexico’s gangs, reportedly makes less than 50% of its income from drug-trafficking with the rest coming through extortion, kidnapping and other violent crime.

Mexico’s leading investigative news magazine “Proceso” recently ran a cover story suggesting that the man who decides the 2012 election will be Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, the leader of Mexico’s biggest drug-trafficking organization the Sinaloa Cartel. Interviewing top analysts of the “Drug War”, the left-leaning magazine implied that Calderon may finally go for the kill against the man he’s allegedly favored above other drug kingpins throughout his presidency, thus revitalizing the PAN’s bid for re-election.

Guzman’s death would do zero to halt the illegal drug trade but it would be highly symbolic. Since his escape from a maximum-security prison in 2001, the near-mythical “Chapo” has become synonymous with both the Mexican drug trade and the carnage it has spawned. As the election draws closer, don’t rule out an Osama-style super-raid cooked up in Washington but with the plaudits going to Calderon so he can reap the benefits at the polls.

The government hasn’t updated its death toll of 34,500 for nearly a year but this month Mexico’s only independent daily La Jornada claimed the count has broken the 50,000 mark. The paper tallied 10,424 homicides in 2011 alone (there were 15,273 in 2010). On that most Mexican of holidays the Day of the Dead a few weeks back, a pro-peace demonstration on Mexico City’s Reforma Avenue bore the emotive slogan “Todos los dias son dias de los muertos” (“Everyday is a Day of the Dead”).

Also this month, former president Vicente Fox – one-time “drug warrior” and close friend/poodle of the Bush administration – chose Washington to publicly lay down a call for a government ceasefire with the cartels. Like other former Mexican presidents, including the PRI’s Ernesto Zedillo, Fox appears to have had a change of heart (or attack of guilt) about his role in the country’s bloodshed.

Fox, who routinely visited the Bushes’ ranch in Crawford, Texas during his six-year term and backed Dubya’s Iraq odyssey, delivered one of the “Drug War’s” more memorable quotes when he described the $1.6 billion US Merida Initiative (“Plan Mexico”) as “nothing more than a ‘tip’ given to us, paid in blood, death and violence – the task is theirs, to stop drugs from circulating in the United States.” The Bushes would not be amused.

The stakes are high. According to the National Council for the Evaluation of Social Development Policy (CONEVAL), 46% of Mexicans, or 52 million people, live in poverty, with 14 million in extreme poverty. 28 million Mexicans cannot cover their daily nutritional needs while 7 million young people are without work or education. Mexico is Latin America’s second largest economy.

The Chile-based Latinobarometro, which gauges public opinion throughout Latin America, recently reported that just 40% of Mexicans view democracy as “preferable to any other type of government”, the third lowest figure in the region ahead of Guatemala and Honduras. 14% said that in certain circumstances, “authoritarian government can be preferable to a democratic one” while only 44% expect the 2012 elections to be fair.

AMLO has breathed new life into a race that threatened to be a foregone conclusion. If he can summon anything like the spirit of ’06, it will be an interesting ride but the smart money is still on the PRI to do the unthinkable and retake the country it ruled for 71 years.

Paul Imison is a journalist. He can be reached