Mexico’s Presidential Race: Running on Air

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Here is a link to my latest article on AQBlog, titled “Mexico’s Presidential Race: Running on Air” , published on Feb. 15th, 2012. Please feel free to visit and comment. Here is a verbatim copy of it in case you prefer to read it on my personal blog, though I recommend actually going to the site because of additional content, other blogger’s articles, etc.

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The stage is finally set for the presidential race between Josefina Vázquez Mota (PAN), Andrés Manuel López Obrador (PRD/PT) and Enrique Peña Nieto (PRI/PVEM). What is about to unfold in the coming months is a barrage of party propaganda and news media stories designed to pull the undecided electorate toward one or the other candidates, but the actual content of the messages will surely show the lack of political consciousness in Mexico.

The product of a school system in crisis, a large portion of Mexico’s constituency is comprised of uneducated voters. Moreover, for those lucky enough to have gone through formal schooling, two essential things are missing: development of a widespread civic/political culture and embedding the capacity for critical thinking.  With regard to elections, Mexicans’ decisions have traditionally been based on a simplistic understanding of what candidates represent, if we like the way they talk and even their looks.

 A very young and sensationalist media also works against the creation of a politically informed voter base. Mainstream newspapers and TV networks are more interested in covering and making fun of the latest verbal gaffe by one of the candidates than really doing an in-depth analysis of the actual platforms they are running on. And the worst part is some of the current candidates have caught wind of this so their campaign focus will be less on substance and more on giving the media what they want in order to get more exposure. A secondary concern is the actual proposals and solutions to the country’s biggest challenges.

Of the three candidates, the only one who has provided public discourse with a somewhat clear and consistent direction is López Obrador. To be fair, his campaign is six years ahead of the other two but that doesn’t excuse the fact that Vázquez and Peña have been unable to effectively communicate what they stand for and what their governments would seek. They might not even be trying to do this, as they’ve found they can try to win the election through other strategies.  

Today we know that López Obrador opposes the neoliberal model and his macroeconomic policies are less focused on healthy management of public debt and more on building infrastructure. In his presidency, public spending would likely go up via populist programs, less worried about sustainable finance (the way his administration ran Mexico City). We know he opposes the military’s involvement in the war on drugs and gang-related violence, though we are not yet clear on his proposal for an effective alternative. Because he includes it in his rhetoric, we are clear on his views on supporting the agricultural sector and the ever-pervasive and violent SME (Sindicato Mexicano de Electricistas), a union which represents employees of a public company that doesn’t exist anymore. His foreign affairs policies would likely skew away from the globalization dynamic and steer more toward regional bloc building with Latin America. Somewhat ironically, being open about his platform has done very little to help AMLO gain support. According to a recent poll, his numbers have been stagnant since October 2011 despite heavy campaigning.

Josefina Vázquez Mota will use her political background and take advantage of the gender-role dynamics to position herself as the modern, socially-focused candidate. We will likely see her include education and jobs as the cornerstones of her campaign but her views on the economic model might only be inferred from her allegiance to the PAN party. On her official website, the closest thing to an actual political platform is an invitation to build a national plan through social inclusion and civil participation. Her public appearances follow suit, with statements on how we must build the nation together but lacking substance. Vázquez’ popularity has recently jumped in the polls, catapulting her as the viable alternative for voters who wish to keep the PRI from coming back to power and (at least for now), relegating López to a distant third place position. Her role in the race is being questioned by the media not for her position on any of the issues but by raising the question “is Mexico ready for a woman to be President?”

The leading candidate is still Peña Nieto but his numbers have been on a tailspin due to a series of statements that validate López’ criticism against him for being a “product” or “junk food” candidate. Of the three, Peña is the one whose positions on anything are still a complete mystery.  His public speeches have been empty and unclear. Besides representing the return of PRI to power, Mexicans have no idea what he stands for or his value proposition. He apparently opposes the ruling party’s recent administration but his platform called “An Effective State” provides nothing new, different or innovative that has not already been pushed forward by Calderón’s administration.

Why is Peña leading in the polls?  Because Mexicans do not vote based on substance. Part of his popularity might be attributed to people disappointed of the PAN alternative looking back to the PRI and thinking “we were better off back then.” Add to this Peña’s good looks and his marriage to a soap opera star which helped him gain points early on in the race. However, Peña is running out of fuel and has nothing with which to fill the tank. Until he proves otherwise, Peña is the candidate “running on empty” as López has pointed out. The possibility of either Vázquez or López catching up, is still very much on the table.

It’s too late for this presidential race, but if Mexicans are to make the right decisions in elections to come, we must invest in creating a better informed and politically conscious voter base and we can’t expect the political elite to do it for us. It’s easier for them to run on personal popularity.

*Arjan Shahani is a contributing blogger to AmericasQuarterly.org. He lives in Monterrey, Mexico, and is an MBA graduate from Thunderbird University and Tecnológico de Monterrey and a member of the International Advisory Board of Global Majority—an international non-profit organization dedicated to the promotion of non-violent conflict resolution.

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