Battle Lines Drawn in Mexico’s Election

After the PAN became the final party to name its candidate last month, we now know that the outcome of the 2012 Mexican election will be, in one way or another, historic. Three possible outcomes: the party of the former dictatorship, the PRI, regains power for the first time since 2000; Mexico, the presumed home of machismo, gets its first ever female president; or the Left wins its first free election in history. All against the now familiar backdrop of rising inequality, dirty cash, a bullet-ridden “Drug War”, and the telenovela-worthy relationship with the US.

For a while, it was all about Enrique Pena Nieto. In the last few months, scandal has followed PR gaffe has followed scandal for the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) candidate. Yet if the polls are to be believed, the former ruling party’s golden boy is still ahead of his rivals – Josefina Vazquez Mota of the right-wing National Action Party (PAN) and Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador of the leftist Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD).

That’s if the polls can be trusted. Given that democratic elections are a relatively new phenomenon in Mexico – born after the PRI dictatorship fell in 2000 – doubts have been raised over how the major polling agencies gather their information; added to which, President Felipe Calderon landed himself in hot water with Mexico’s Federal Electoral Institute (IFE) by just plain inventing a poll during a meeting with the country’s top bankers.

Expect Calderon – who can’t run because of constitutional limits – to be as insidious a presence in this year’s build-up as his predecessor Vicente Fox was in 2006. The lamest of ducks, Calderon is fuming that no one in Mexico takes him seriously after some two million jobs lost, a widening income gap, and a military crackdown on organized crime that has left 50,000- dead in five years. He’s enjoyed the full backing of both the Bush and Obama administrations, however, so no doubt some cushy institutional  post in Washington awaits him. Who needs the love of the Mexican people?

If his party is to retain power, it needs a major facelift. Enter one Josefina Vazquez Mota; the first female presidential candidate for a major party in Mexican history. Comparisons to Dilma Rousseff of Brazil and Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner of Argentina as women leading major Latin American economies are inevitable. Unfortunately, Vazquez Mota is cut from the same socially-conservative, neoliberal cloth as her PAN predecessors.

Feminist groups have come out ambiguously on the matter, backing the notion of a woman president while reminding supporters of Vazquez Mota’s reactionary views on issues like abortion and gay rights. Like many PANistas, she’s extremely close to “El Yunque”, a far-right group whose stated goal is to “defend the Catholic religion and fight the forces of Satan”.

With its core conservative base, the PAN will naturally seek to benefit from the visit of Pope Benedict XVI later this month. His Holiness has turned down the opportunity to visit Mexico City, citing concerns over pollution and altitude, and will instead head to the PAN stronghold of Guanajuato; also at high altitude. It has absolutely nothing to do with the fact that liberal Mexico City boasts legalized same-sex marriage and abortions-on-demand, of course.

Pena’s Woes

Yet the PAN has a fight on its hands. According to most polls, the PRI’s Enrique Pena Nieto maintains the lead he’s seemingly held forever despite a series of political and PR nightmares. A telegenic but depthless political operator prone to Bush-like gaffes – former president and NAFTA architect Carlos Salinas de Gortari is allegedly the man really pulling the strings – he’s currently the butt of a pinata’s worth of jokes courtesy of Mexico’s educated classes.

Some have been fun. Taking questions at a literary fair in December, Pena Nieto looked like a deer in headlights when asked to name a book that had influenced his life. When his advisors prompted him with “La Silla del Aguila”, one of the great contemporary Mexican novels, he then failed to identify Carlos Fuentes, one of the country’s literary heavyweights, as its author.

“He has the right not to read me,” retorted Fuentes. “What he does not have is the right to be president, based on his ignorance.”

As the skits flew (“Don’t give money to Pena Nieto, just buy him a book”), the candidate’s socialite daughter attacked her father’s critics via Twitter, claiming that “the idiot proles only criticize the people they envy” – prompting many Mexicans to change their Facebook status to “Yo tambien soy prole” (“I’m a jealous working-class idiot, too”).

The worst rumor surrounding Pena Nieto – certainly invented – is that he murdered his first wife in order to marry soap actress Angelica Rivera and gain the public profile necessary to win the presidency. It’s pure viciousness, but it shows the hatred that many Mexicans still feel towards the PRI, which governed them with an authoritarian hand for 71 years.

Don’t worry; the scandals have been political as well. Soon after Pena Nieto became candidate, his team had to broker the departure of party president Humberto Moreira Valdes who had overseen the pilfering of millions of dollars of federal funds while governor of the state of Coahuila. This was just what the “new-look” PRI didn’t need; proof that they hadn’t changed their spots after all. Incredibly, Moreira hung on for three months, accusing political rivals of a witch-hunt, until Pena called him out.

The PRI generally can’t avoid corruption scandals – the Treasurer of Veracruz State was recently arrested at an airport near Mexico City with US$1.9 million in cash, which he claims was destined for an advertising agency in the capital. The PRI government of Veracruz has been heavily linked to the Zetas gang, which uses the state’s historic port for its drug-trafficking operations.

The problem is that thanks to its seven-decade rule, the PRI still controls a large section of the Mexican media and is using the PAN’s dismal record – failing public security, rising unemployment and poverty figures – to make out that everything was rosy in the days of dictatorship. Media outlets like Televisa, which virtually monopolizes Mexican television, along with powerful interests that flourished under the PRI only seek to reinforce the charade.

The PAN clearly views the PRI as threat number one in this year’s race and Felipe Calderon insists that if the old guard returns to power, it will be largely due to a cushy relationship with the country’s drug-traffickers; the old PRI was notorious for cutting deals with “narco”. While he’s probably right, the PAN has its own truck-full of dirty laundry and drug connections to come into play, leading the PRI to accuse the latter – without a hint of irony – of “dirty war” tactics.

The Left Strikes Back

The real dirty war is, as always, against the Left and involves everything from targeting human rights defenders to the demonization of Mexico’s leading dissident voice, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador. Attention was drawn to the fact that in her victory speech for the PAN primary, Vasquez Mota didn’t even mention Lopez Obrador (AMLO) as a rival. Likewise, the corporate media – which attempted to destroy AMLO’s presidential bid in 2006 – is determined to paint this as PAN vs. PRI all the way.

The Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD) will head a leftist coalition – the “Progressive Movement” – again this year, but as party leader Jesus Zambrano put it last week: “The PAN and the PRI are trying to create a belief in the national imagination that the PRD doesn’t exist, that it doesn’t have a presence in the election, that Mexicans can only choose between the blue-and-white [PAN] and the tricolor [PRI].”

At least the PRD has come out with a united front. Its three biggest names – Lopez Obrador, Mexico City mayor Marcelo Ebrard, and founder Cuauhtemoc Cardenas, who have bickered incessantly in recent years – are at last on the same page, or thereabouts. Prior to last year, the party was fiercely divided between the so-called “radical” element headed by AMLO and centrists like Cardenas, Ebrard and Zambrano.

It was AMLO’s faction that lost the 2006 election to Calderon’s PAN by less than 1 per cent of the vote. Many pointed to fraud in Calderon’s victory but the Federal Electoral Institute refused to pursue the full recount of ballots that PRD supporters were demanding. AMLO, whose party has governed Mexico City since 1997, then took over the capital’s historic downtown Occupy-style and proclaimed himself “the legitimate president”, only pouring fuel on the fire lit by his detractors.

Like Chavez in Venezuela, AMLO was never as “radical” as his critics made out – it was all in the rhetoric – and he has softened his tone considerably this time; visiting Spain and the US to reassure investors and citing Brazil’s ex-president Lula da Silva as a role-model. Like Lula, AMLO’s core support is undeniably the working-class and below; well more than half of the Mexican population. It’s middle-class progressives – many of whom found his behavior in 2006 appalling – that he has to convince.

The majority of Mexicans know that the PAN-PRI merry-go-round is a sham, but not everyone who counts themselves among the Left backs AMLO and the PRD. The most well-known of the country’s guerrilla groups, for example, the Zapatista Army of National Liberation, has long distanced itself from the PRD and implored its supporters not to vote for any party in 2006.

Likewise, the leaders of the popular and growing Peace Movement, which opposes both the violent drug gangs and President Felipe Calderon’s anti-crime crackdown, have refused to back AMLO. The movement’s symbolic leader, Javier Sicilia, well-respected by Mexico’s middle-class, has avoided the advances of any political party. Sicilia recently vowed to spoil his ballot when he goes to vote in July and declared the election a “sham” before it even happens, prompting AMLO to accuse him of “playing into the hands of the right-wing”.

It ought to be said that were AMLO to win in July – and most polls currently have him third – he would inevitably butt heads with whoever wins the White House this year. Despite looking to run a far less provocative campaign than six years ago, he has repeatedly criticized the US for “imposing” policies that run against the interests of the vast majority (one might say, the 99 per cent) of Mexicans. It’s hard to imagine an AMLO-Obama pairing – much less a partnership with a Republican administration – running smoothly for too long.

Whatever happens on July 1st, the legacy of President Felipe Calderon, who leaves office in December, will not be a happy one. He will forever be associated with Mexico’s tragic “Drug War” (now “the war on organized crime”) while perpetuating the same neoliberal agenda as the latter-day PRI administrations. Among a slew of damning evidence, a recent report by the National Council for the Evaluation of Social Development Policy (CONEVAL) claimed there are 3.2 million more poor in Mexico since Calderon took charge.

However little the US media may appear to care about any of this (how many Americans actually know there’s an election south of the border?), the White House certainly does. US Vice-President Joe Biden met with all three Mexican candidates – in alphabetical order – this week “to reaffirm the United States’ commitment to respecting Mexico’s democratic process in a totally impartial manner.”

We all know that won’t happen. It’s clear from the messages being sent out by the media that the preference is for the PAN – the party friendliest to US investment and strategic interests. Unfortunately for Washington’s power-brokers, in the 21stcentury Mexicans have the right to choose.

PAUL IMISON lives in Mexico City. He can be reached at