As elections Approach, Soccer and Politics Dominate Mexican Life

Photo by Mariya Butd | CC BY 2.0

Two events dominate Mexican life these days: The World Soccer Cup, electrified by Mexico’s upset 1-0 Father’s Day win against Germany, and the July 1 elections. Prior to the big game, Mexican leaders hailed the World Soccer Federation’s decision to divide the 2026 cup games among the U.S., Canada and Mexico.

Aristoteles Sandoval, the outgoing governor of the big state of Jalisco, couldn’t resist the occasion to take a poke at the occupant of the White House.

“I believe it is a message to the world in these so difficult times of radical, nationalist actions, very regionalized or localized of Donald Trump, because it is a big message that Mexico, the U.S. and Canada will be united in an event that unites millions and when the eyes of the world will be on Jalisco,” Sandoval was quoted by the Mexican press agency Notimex as saying.

Now, as guttural screams of “Goooaaal!!” vibrate from the throats of announcers amplified on the big flat screens seemingly draped everywhere, other strident words rattle public space in the final days of political campaigning.

In Puerto Vallarta, Jalisco, two men stand in front of a pharmacy and loudly urge passersby to vote for presidential frontrunner Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s center-left National Regeneration Movement (Morena) Party. Blocks away a car sporting a sound system blares a jingle with the chorus “Let’s go with Roberto,” in reference to one of the dozen contenders for mayor.

On the scenic boardwalk, a woman sports a nonpartisan t-shirt with a simple message: Vote!

López Obrador, a former Mexico City mayor and three-time presidential candidate who evokes strong emotions either way, has undoubtedly defined the 2018 elections at the federal level.

“Society is very politically polarized. We are probably living a historic moment for the country,” said Benny Ibarra, a Puerto Vallarta businessman and neighborhood activist.

Yet the 2018 elections go far beyond electing a new president. Considered Mexico’s biggest ever with more than 3,400 posts up for grabs, the elections will produce a new national congress and seat new mayors, governors, city council representatives and state lawmakers in 30 of the nation’s 32 states. A wholesale change (or recycling according to the critics) of the political class – and possibly priorities — is in store.

Although the Mexican presidential contest has gotten its due attention in the U.S. press, coverage of state and local races has been virtually absent in this country. Yet as is the case north of the border, all politics in Mexico could be said to be local. Multiple trends, diverse issues and new political tendencies bubbling up in the country’s distinct regions must be taken into consideration in gauging the direction of national politics.

An important barometer of Mexico’s political future is found in Jalisco, home the country’s second largest city, Guadalajara, as well as the nation’s second biggest international tourist destination after Cancun and the Mayan Riviera: Puerto Vallarta.

Big and little trees in Puerto Vallarta

In an unprecedented competition, 12 candidates are vying for the mayor’s job in Puerto Vallarta, five of them independents unaffiliated with political parties and now allowed to compete for office thanks to recent political reforms. Many locals, however, predict the current mayor, Arturo Davalos of the Citizen Movement Party, will be reelected on July 1, an outcome also made possible by electoral reforms permitting the re-election of some office holders, once a long-running taboo in Mexican politics.

Youthful, energetic and idealistic, a grassroots independent movement has emerged in Puerto Vallarta and Jalisco. Dubbed El Arbolito, or “The Little Tree,” the movement is running 14 candidates for state and federal legislative seats in a conscious political strategy of wielding a “counterweight” to executive power, said Pedro Kumamoto, a 28-year-old from Guadalajara who was elected as the state’s first independent legislator in 2015 and is now running for the Mexican Senate.

El Arbolito hasn’t endorsed a candidate for president or governor of Jalisco but is willing to work with any winner who presents “good ideas,” Kumamoto told this reporter. Besides the focus on legislative power, El Arbolito is advocating for independent prosecutors, universal health coverage, curbing corruption, ensuring transparency in government operations and, above all, transforming politics into an arena where everyday citizens have a meaningful voice and a genuine vote.

“Public health in Mexico is deplorable,” Kumamoto contended. “We have to recognize that is a right in our Constitution, not a privilege.”

Asked if El Arbolito’s candidates have confronted threats or violence in 2018, Kumamoto said he received death threats when he first ran for office in 2015 but so far this year his movement has only encountered the occasional verbal aggression or insult in the streets.

As of Thursday, 118 murders related to the 2018 election process had been registered since last September, according to Mexican press accounts.

Two of the latest murders included the Thursday slaying of Fernando Angeles Juárez, PRD candidate for mayor of Ocampo, Michoacan, and the Wednesday killing of Omar Gomez, an independent candidate for mayor of Aguililla, a town also located in Michoacan.

Kumamoto spoke at a recent rally in Puerto Vallarta that featured two fellow candidates from El Arbolito: Juanita Delgado of Guadalajara, who is also jousting for a Senate seat, and 29-year-old Gaby Velasco of Puerto Vallarta, who is running for the state legislature.

In interviews, both Kumamoto and Velasco criticized election rules for not providing a level playing field for independents. Kumamoto, for instance, said he was assigned $3.5 million pesos in public financing for his campaign while each rival from an established political party was budgeted $29 million pesos.

A journalist and former director of the local Coparmex business association, Velasco assessed her candidacy as a grassroots initiative active on the streets and in the neighborhoods that’s designed to put people power at the helm of politics.

“All the changes that need to done won’t be possible to accomplish by one (political) party,” the young candidate said. “It’s about people doing a lot of little changes.”

Velasco goaded the state election authority into organizing the first-ever candidates’ debate for her legislative district. Held at the University of Guadalajara’s University Coast Center (CUC) in Puerto Vallarta earlier this month and transmitted live on the university radio station and the Internet, the one-hour event focused on matters of security, culture, health, public works and transparency.

Of the eight candidates competing for the legislative seat, four showed up — Velasco, Maria Elena Becerra (Revolutionary Institutional Party ), Jose Manuel Galindo (Green Party) and Cecilia Banuelos (National Alliance Party).

Velasco was disappointed by the no-shows. “We are confirming that the political parties don’t want to do what the people want,” she insisted. “We think it’s important that people look at the forms. The way they conduct their campaigns is the way they are going to govern.”

In a proposal usually not seen in Mexican politics, Velasco advocates more outreach to the immigrant community in her district, which encompasses a large population of transplants and parttime residents from the United States, Canada and other nations.

While expats typically steer clear of Mexican politics, not the least reason being that the Mexican Constitution prohibits foreigners from meddling in national politics, Velasco values the presence of foreign born residents in the Puerto Vallarta and vows to convene a special meeting with them if elected, which would be another first. “Government needs to be sensitive to the foreign community,” she said.

El Arbolito’s Puerto Vallarta rally at a public park had a different tone and feel from many typical Mexican election campaign gatherings. Before the speeches began, attendees gathered in small groups in the shade to discuss promotional strategies. Music from a trio and a thematic poem preceded the words of Kumamoto, Delgado and Velasco.

“Never let politics belong to the same old party. Let it belong to all of us,” the state legislative candidate said. “It’s not about Gaby arriving to Congress. It’s about the struggles and dreams arriving.”

Vowed Kumamoto: “We are going to recover peace, politics and the future.”

The evasive green question and politics

For Puerto Vallarta, the 2018 elections come at a critical juncture in the city’s history. Celebrating its 100th anniversary this year as a municipality, the city is brimming with photo expositions, symposia, concerts and remembrances. Located astride the bayside boardwalk, the Hotel Rosita is also commemorating its 70th anniversary this year.

The hotel marked the occasion by featuring a lobby exhibit of 10 photographers who captured stunning black and white and color images of the local landscape, wildlife, buildings and Banderas Bay, both of bygone and contemporary times.

For photographer Luz Aurora, the Pacific coast city represents “galloping horses, resting families and travelers who fall in love with Puerto Vallarta and its sunsets.” Eva Sica, an immigrant from Lithuania who now practices her photographic craft in Puerto Vallarta, creatively depicted local sentiments of maintaining beach access on a coastline crowded with hotel chains and private developments.

Her artsy shots of beach entrances were described as a “cry for the rights of people living in Puerto Vallarta to access all the beaches in a self-respecting way.”

Since 1990, Puerto Vallarta has nearly tripled in population from 114,457 to about 300,000 people today, according to numbers cited by Dr. Jorge Chavoya of the CUC and other local estimates.

Growth, however, has engendered controversy, dramatized by the spurt of high rise condo construction in the so-called Romantic Zone of the city, a place long enjoyed by residents and tourists as a “traditional Mexican town” of cobblestone streets, bright white low buildings with tiled roofs and evening street gatherings of neighbors.

All this is on the verge of becoming a memory. During the last two years, developers have constructed hundreds of units and are in the process of building more. In Colonia Emiliano Zapata, an old, long-abandoned movie theater is being torn down to make way for another monument to the condo kings.

Visitors to bustling Olas Altas street might even be startled to see multi stories being plopped on top of an art gallery and neighboring Oxxo store (a Mexican version of 7-11 or Circle K), while the ground-level businesses remain open.

“People are upset. They are mad about this,” summed up Rosa Limon, who runs a stationery store and rents a few apartments in the zone. Concerns voiced by Limon and others include the lack of parking, obstruction of views, oversaturation of the water and sewerage system and displacement of locals by rising real estate values.

Nonetheless, few politicians have taken the issue head on, according to Limon. “The authorities aren’t interested or don’t have knowledge of the issue. Balancing the environment in a sustainable way doesn’t result in an immediate pay-off. On the other hand, constructing a building has an immediate benefit,” she said.

At a recent conference on the past, present and future of Puerto Vallarta sponsored by local government, the CUC’s Dr. Edmundo Andrade characterized the condo boom as a violent endeavor that’s blinded the citizenry of Puerto Vallarta. “They’ve put a curtain up,” he said.

Although Mexican heritage is often identified with “architectural works,” urban ecology has gotten the short end of the stick in this election cycle, according to Chavoya.

“There is a sector of the population that is interested in these issues but the difficulty lies with the government taking action on this,” he said.

A business operator in Colonia Emiliano Zapata, Benny Ibarra is likewise deeply concerned about the future of his neighborhood — and city.

“We aren’t against construction but want it to happen in an orderly way,” Ibarra said. Nonetheless, due to the political polarization surrounding July 1, even getting local candidates to meet with his group has proven a challenge, he added.

“We hope everything goes back to normal after the elections and harmony is recuperated,” Ibarra said.

Completing her term in office next September, Puerto Vallarta city council rep Bellanni Fong of the Citizen Movement Party, head of the elected body’s ecology commission, said in an interview that she is trying to get several initiatives passed into law before leaving office, including elevating the status and power of the municipal ecology office to that of the urban planning department, which is in charge of issuing construction permits; establishing an environmental education center; and setting aside more than 150 acres of the city’s lush hillsides as parks.

Fong added, “Everything about the environment is urgent, but I think protecting the mountain is important because it’s our tourist attraction. That’s why people come here: the magic of the mountain, and the magic of the sea.”

On to July 1

The candidates in Puerto Vallarta and elsewhere in Mexico are busy wrapping up their campaigns as the nation prepares for historic decisions on July 1. For a couple of days in June, Donald Trump and his administration’s now-rescinded policy of separating detained migrant children from their parents dominated Mexican media and took center stage in the country’s presidential campaign, as the four remaining candidates (the lone woman candidate, Margarita Zavala, dropped out in May) variously denounced the White House and demanded opposing action from their government.

Jamming as many as three or four appearances a day into his schedule, presidential frontrunner López Obrador plans to hold his final rally June 27 at Azteca Stadium in Mexico City instead of the capital city’s Zocalo public square, because the politically rival city government reserved the space for huge flat screens that will project World Soccer Cup matches. On the morning of June 27, Mexico is scheduled play against Sweden.

By the third week of June, the official National Electoral Institute (INE) had certified 711 foreigners from 55 countries as election observers, and approved the same status for 19,548 Mexican citizens with tens of thousands of other applications pending.

At the same time, the INE reported that it had already received 74,826 completed mail-in (absentee) ballots from Mexicans living abroad, nearly twice the total number of Mexican voters in other countries who cast ballots in the 2012 Mexican presidential election but still a small fraction of the estimated 12 million Mexicans residing outside the country of their birth.

Concerned about possible election irregularities and fraud, recurring events in Mexican political history, citizen organizations such as the University and Citizen Network for Democracy are planning to keep close tab on the election day polls and the results that flow from the voting.

The political parties and independent candidates will also marshal their supporters for election monitoring tasks. Sandra Quinones is one them. A onetime militant of the National Action Party, Quinones is now backing El Arbolito. “Help us defend the vote,” read a placard worn by Quinones at the group’s Puerto Vallarta rally.

“(Election monitoring) gives certainty to the process, so everything is legal and there aren’t illegalities in the process like there has been in the past in Mexico,” Quinones said.

Kent Paterson is a freelance journalist who covers the southwestern United States, the border region and Mexico. He is a regular contributor to CounterPunch and the Americas Program.