The Rise of MORENA

On Sunday, June 7th, important midterm elections were held in Mexico, governed by Enrique Peña Nieto of the PRI – a party that ruled for more than seventy years until 2000, followed by two disastrous presidencies by the ultraconservative PAN party, only to regain power in the 2012 elections, thanks largely to massive vote buying and to a close relationship with Mexico’s television duopoly.

In these midterm elections, the PRI and its “satellite” parties have managed to hold on to a majority in Congress. This is somewhat surprising, considering Peña Nieto’s low approval ratings; corruption scandals involving his government and himself (journalists revealed last year that the mansion where he and his family live was sold to his wife, presumably at a price below market value, by a businessman that had won important contracts with the government); bad economic results and a depreciation of the Mexican peso; a very unpopular neoliberal reform agenda (increasing taxes and affecting labor rights, as well as the education, the telecommunications, and the energy sectors); a recent upsurge in narco-related violence; an increase in human rights violations, including dozens of extrajudicial killings by the military and the federal police in Mexico state and Michoacán state; and the incomplete investigation concerning the attack, in the city of Iguala, against students from the Ayotzinapa rural teacher’s college, leading to the death of 6 people and the forced disappearance of 43 students (the investigation only pointed to the municipal government’s responsibility, in cahoots with a local drug cartel, leaving out the responsibility of the military and of the federal police, that were, according to all accounts, present during the attacks).

So how has Peña Nieto and the PRI managed to hold on to the majority in Congress, even wining 5 of 9 governorships that were up for grabs? (Some would even say 6, since one was won by an independent candidate with close relations with the PRI). Here’s a non exhaustive list of factors explaining this situation:

* A weakened right wing. The popularity of the PAN party has been damaged by joining the “Pacto por México”, a political alliance that Peña Nieto was able to draw up between the three main parties (PRI, PRD and PAN), in order to pass his reforms. In fact, the popularity of the PAN has been diminishing ever since it managed to win the 2000 presidential election, due to the extremely disappointing sexenio (six year term) of Vicente Fox (related to mediocre economic results, corruption scandals involving himself and his family, improper involvement in the 2006 presidential election, among other things) and the equally mediocre and extremely violent sexenio of Felipe Calderón, who started the ill-conceived and failed war on the cartels, leading to more than 100,000 deaths and more than 25,000 disappeared persons. On Sunday’s midterm elections, the PAN managed to garner 21.9% of the vote for Congress (down from 25% in 2012), giving it 108 seats in the 500 seat Congress. However, this makes the PAN the second most important political force in the country.

* A weakened left wing. The popularity of the traditional center-left party, the PRD, has also been seriously damaged due to several issues. First of all, the mayor of Iguala, where the Ayotzinapa students were attacked and forcefully disappeared, was of the PRD. He and his wife are currently in jail and awaiting prosecution for ordering the attacks. Secondly, the PRD has had a tendency to move to the right, especially under its current leaders, the “Chuchos”, alienating many of its supporters. Thirdly, and related to the last point, the PRD joined the “Pacto por México” alliance with the PRI and the PAN to help pass Peña Nieto’s unpopular reforms. These issues, among others, have led many important figures in the PRD to abandon ship (including ex-presidential candidates Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas and Andrés Manuel López Obrador, and former Mexico City mayors Marcelo Ebrard and Alejandro Encinas). On Sunday’s midterm elections, the PRD managed to win only 11.3% of the vote for Congress, down from 18.4% in 2012, giving it 56 seats in Congress. However, the PRD remains the third most important political party.

* The PRI’s incredible capacity to buy votes, thanks to direct vote buying techniques and to indirect means such as social programs and State aid, especially a recent government program that has given away about 10 million flat screen televisions in poor areas, supposedly to prepare for the digital television transition.

* The continued close relationship between Peña Nieto and Mexico’s television duopoly, assuring favorable coverage.

* The PRI’s alliance with the Nueva Alianza party and especially with Mexico’s “Green” Party. In reality, the Green Party has nothing green about it (the European green parties have even condemned it and ceased recognizing it as a green party for supporting the death penalty, among other things), being just a political front for Mexico’s television duopoly. The Green Party operated a largely illegal campaign, running ads and putting up billboards before the official start of the campaign, running unauthorized ads in movie theaters, running untruthful ads, distributing prohibited supermarket discount cards to the electorate, and even paying actors and sports celebrities to tweet favorable remarks about the Party, ignoring the National Electoral Institute (INE) when it ordered it to stop many of these illegal acts. This political campaign certainly exceeded the financing the Green Party was allotted and allowed to use. This delinquent political organization has thankfully been given a multimillion peso fine by the INE (of around 500 million pesos, or 32 million dollars), although it was repeatedly reduced by the Electoral Tribunal. A petition, signed by more than 150,000 people, demanded the INE to cancel the Green Party’s registration for serious and systematic violations of electoral law, but was ignored. The PRI garnered 30.4% of the vote for Congress (down only a couple percentage points from 2012), and the Green Party 7.2%. Together, these two parties will have 250 Congress members, which grow to 260 with Nueva Alianza, giving the PRI the necessary majority to pass laws, although not to change the Constitution.

* A high abstention rate and a large number of annulled votes, caused by a general feeling of disgust and anger towards electoral authorities and political parties, which indirectly benefits the parties that have the largest social bases and the most means to buy votes (the PRI, first and foremost). However, the abstention rate was in fact lower than in the last midterm elections (53% in 2015, versus 55.4% in 2009), and the percentage of annulled votes was also slightly lower (5% in 2015, versus 5.4% in 2009). Therefore, “blaming” voter abstention and vote annulment for the PRI-Green Party’s victory seems a bit harsh. But it is true that unless opposition parties manage to garner votes from the disenchanted electorate, the PRI-Green Party alliance will continue to have an important advantage.

Mexicans have, of course, very good reasons to abstain, to annul their votes, and even to boycott the elections (by preventing elections to take place in certain places), as some groups – led by teachers, students of rural teachers’ colleges and parents of the 43 missing students of Ayotzinapa – tried to achieve in the states of Guerrero and Oaxaca, demanding that the 43 students be presented alive, that the neoliberal reform agenda be stopped and reversed (especially the education reform), among other things. However, the idea of refraining from the electoral system seems a bit counterproductive since it makes things easier for the PRI-Green Party to win elections and to continue its reform agenda (coming up are the PRI’s plans for facilitating the privatization of peasant lands, its water privatization bill, and its social security reform).

Defenders of vote annulment, voter abstention or boycotting elections have tried to make the case that representative democracy in Mexico is broken (if it ever worked) and that all political parties are the same. This last idea is to some extent correct for the parties that signed the “Pacto por México” (PRI, PAN and PRD), that have increasingly similar ideologies and have become extremely corrupt and authoritarian, but there are other parties out there that are garnering support, especially the new left-wing Movimiento de Regeneración Nacional party, or MORENA (an acronym that means “dark skinned”), formed by ex-presidential candidate and former Mexico City mayor Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO). MORENA’s leaders have promised to undo Peña Nieto’s reforms if the party wins big in the 2018 presidential election, and they have run a campaign based largely on combating corruption. On Sunday’s midterm election, MORENA managed to gain 8.7% of the vote (giving it 35 seats in Congress), essentially absorbing the votes that the PRD lost, making it the forth largest party in Mexico (just behind the PRD).

Although this isn’t a huge amount of support, it is impressive knowing that MORENA was barely formed last year as a political party, and received very little financing for the campaign. MORENA thus ran a mainly a door-to-door campaign, thanks to its dedicated members and supporters. Its presence and victories are, however, essentially concentrated in Mexico City, and especially in the Federal District (D.F.), where it won control of 5 of 16 delegaciones (boroughs), and a third of the seats (22 out of 66) on the D.F.’s Congress, making it the most important party (dethroning the PRD, which won 19 seats). The rapid and growing importance of MORENA has led some analysts on the left to compare it to Syriza in Greece or Podemos in Spain. However, it remains to be seen if MORENA can become a truly “national” party, with a significant presence in the whole country.

Mexico’s representative democracy is no doubt in crisis, as it is in many other countries. But for the time being, it will continue to be Mexico’s form of government, and will drive changes and continuities in policies, having real effects on people’s lives. Evidently, the electoral system is not the only means of political change, but refraining from participating in it will only further the main parties’ interests and their neoliberal political agenda, making it harder to push for progressive policies and changes. Many on the left in Mexico have given up hope for change through representative democracy, and turned towards other political options such as autonomous self-rule, based on the neo-Zapatista and the Cherán experiments. However interesting and promising these autonomous experiments have been, the fact is there have been very few cases, they have been very local (although paradoxically often dependent on external support) and don’t seem to have expanded much (it has been more than 20 years since the neo-Zapatista uprising).

Demands for more direct or participatory forms of democracy can fortunately be brought about through the representative democracy system itself, for example by passing laws permitting citizens to revoke the mandates of their representatives, governors and presidents, or by having referendums and public consultations on important matters. These are precisely some of MORENA’s proposals.

However, MORENA has important challenges and obstacles to overcome if it wants to become a progressive party with a national presence, seriously committed to combating corruption. One challenge is to avoid corruption within the party, which implies total transparency by MORENA’s candidates and leaders, especially concerning their possible conflicts of interest and their declarations of assets. Another challenge concerns the Party’s social involvement and proximity to social movements: MORENA started out as a social movement, and still has close ties with other social organizations, but these ties should be strengthened and enlarged, in order to avoid a distancing from real social demands.

One important obstacle for MORENA is the figure of AMLO himself. First of all, AMLO can be legitimately criticized for trying to personally control and micromanage MORENA, and not letting its members and base make the decisions in a more democratic fashion (especially concerning who the candidates are), which goes against the idea of MORENA as being a “citizens’ party”. Secondly, after years of being bashed by Mexico’s main-stream medias, political parties and powerful economic actors, AMLO has become one of the most despised politicians in Mexico, especially by the upper-middle and rich classes. On the other side of the spectrum, AMLO has been criticized by more radical leftists for turning to more centrist political views during his 2012 presidential campaign, in which he toned down his rhetoric so as not to dissuade the middle classes and undecided persons from voting for him. AMLO has nevertheless managed to retain a devoted following, especially in the lower classes and in the educated middle classes, particularly in Mexico City. However, this following is probably insufficient to let him win the presidency in 2018.

If MORENA seriously wants to win the presidential election in 2018, it might have to look for a different candidate than AMLO. However, this is unlikely due to AMLO’s personal power within the Party and his clear desire to run again in 2018, and because it would be quite difficult for MORENA to find another leader that could garner the massive support AMLO gained in the last two presidential elections.

Matthew Lorenzen can be reached at:

Matthew Lorenzen can be reached at: