Seven lessons from Mexico’s electoral process

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Here is a link to my latest article on AQBlog, titled “Seven lessons from Mexico’s electoral process“, published on July 2nd, 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.

With an estimate of around 37 percent of the votes, Enrique Peña Nieto’s victory in Mexico’s presidential race will be analyzed from multiple angles, including what this will mean with regard to the war on drugs, the economic model in place, relations with the U.S. and the rest of the world, and many other topics.

For the most part, Peña Nieto’s tenure will not imply radical changes in Mexico, for better or worse but the return of the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (Institutional Revolutionary Party—PRI) to power does say a lot about the way Mexico’s society thinks and operates. This electoral process has opened up an interesting window into the Mexican collective psyche. These are some of the lessons from the 2012 election.

Debates are not yet a vehicle for voter decision in Mexico.  There were three presidential debates (two official ones and one organized by #YoSoy132 to which Peña Nieto did not attend) during the presidential race. Peña Nieto’s participation in these dialogues was considered lukewarm at best. His rhetoric was empty but his poor performance was not enough to shift voter preference away from him and toward a second viable option.

We still have a long way to go to build political awareness and education. Peña Nieto’s success cannot be attributed to a strong and enriched political platform or to his superiority as a candidate over his competitors. One could not say that he is smarter, better prepared or better equipped to be president than his competitors. Peña Nieto’s success shows that Mexican voters can easily be manipulated (or convinced) through robust campaigning, a large TV presence and looks. As different media showed when they interviewed people at political rallies (for the three major candidates), a large quantity of voters had no idea of where candidates stood on relevant issues. “I trust him,” “He’s cute” and “I’ll vote for him because the other one is crazy” were some of the compelling arguments that gave Peña Nieto a victory on July 1. Sadly, we still have a long way to go to create an informed voter base. The candidate you saw more billboards and TV ads from, is the one that came out on top in voter preference.

Short-term memory plays a more important role than long-term memory. Peña Nieto won for many reasons but one of them was definitely that voters wanted to punish the Partido Acción Nacional (National Action Party—PAN) for its performance in the past 12 years and Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) for his lack of respect for the rule of law during his 2006 post-election shenanigans. Mexico was willing to forgive and forget and make peace with the PRI because as many voters put it “we were better off with PRI,” for the most part referring to the increasing levels of organized crime violence resulting from the active war on drugs set forth by President Calderón.

There is e-Mexico and then there’s Mexico. There is a clear divide among Mexicans with access to social networks and those without. On Twitter, users were appalled with the results. Even when all polls signaled Peña Nieto’s victory, Internet users were not willing to believe them. Conversations on Twitter and Facebook had been significantly dominated by AMLO and Josefina Vázquez Mota (PAN) followers.  A popular tweet on the night of the election was “I have no idea how they did it. Does anybody here know anyone who voted PRI?” For the most part, the answer was no. Peña Nieto was elected for the most part, by people who do not actively participate online. For upcoming elections, candidates should know that the segment of Internet users in Mexico will only become larger and they will need to actively engage them during the campaign.

The return of PRI does not mean the return of absolutism. This is not optimism; it’s just a very likely reality. Pessimists are evaluating the return of the PRI as a step back in our democracy because they remember the 70 years of absolutism; instead, it is yet another building block in our system which will put to the test whether or not we are a mature enough society to deal with altering power. The PRI will rule a very different Mexico from in the past. Civil society will be more vigilant and we will hold Peña Nieto accountable for his performance as president. Technology will play a significant role in maintaining a non-official discourse, with freedom of speech and free flow of information empowering a growing sector of society. Even with a party majority in Congress, Peña Nieto will have to answer to Mexicans who will either reward or punish his party in future elections.

PRI holding both the executive and a majority in Congress will be an acid test on government efficiency. Both Vicente Fox and Felipe Calderón of the PAN had a very good excuse when their effectiveness was questioned. They could just say (and many times they would have been right) that Congress was blocking their ability to operate and put forth structural reforms.  Peña Nieto will have no such excuse with a PRI majority Congress to not pass and implement the labor, energy, security and political reforms that society has demanded and that have been paralyzed by a non-cooperative legislature during the Calderón government. This will also lead us to question if Mexico’s democracy could actually work and be effective if a real system of checks and balances is in place.

Most people did not vote for Peña Nieto. There were more votes against Peña Nieto than in favor of him. Just like Calderón, Peña Nieto will preside over a country that for the most part, did not want him to be president and did not choose him. This is why last night he went on national TV to say that we should “set aside our differences and privilege our common goals […] we may have different preferences but we have something that binds us together: our love for Mexico […] we share the same challenges and must work together to overcome them.” While his inclusive rhetoric is exactly what Mexico needed to hear last night as it attempts to move forward from electoral campaigning divides, the fact of the matter is that winning by a relative majority surfaces yet again the need to implement a run-off electoral process, just like Calderón proposed to Congress (and was blocked). Given the results of last night’s election, would Peña Nieto have won in a second round of elections running only against López Obrador?

Mexican Electoral Politics Hit Rock Bottom

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Here is a link to my latest article on AQBlog, titled “Mexican Electoral Politics Hit Rock Bottom”, published on Apr. 17th, 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.

The 2012 electoral process is the most uninspiring we’ve seen in recent history. Therefore it’s no surprise that Mexican society is increasingly disenfranchised with the political system. In fact, trust in the political elite is at an all-time low. Where interest groups saw possibilities of working hand in hand with the government in 2000 and 2006, the division between those governing and those being governed grows day by day.

The age group most alien to the electoral process this year will be young adults. A recent UNDP-sponsored study carried out by the Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana (UAM) posits that 7 out of every 10 voters ages 18-29 will not turn out to vote due to “disenchantment with Mexican democracy.” Enrique Cuna Pérez, the head of the sociology department at the UAM, points out that Mexican adolescents do believe in democracy but not in the way it is implemented in the country. “Young people are not shying away from democracy as a system, they are shying away from Mexican democracy. They consider themselves as democratic people. They understand the importance of voting but they are not willing to participate in Mexican democracy as it stands today,” says Cuna.

There are many reasons for this. For one, people are finding it harder to believe in and rally for the different candidates. The turn that political campaigns have taken—toward destructive criticism, finger-pointing and whining—is far from inspiring. Since the actual political platforms and proposals show nothing new, candidates are focusing on projecting their persona, trying to get people to believe in them, but they are doing it by saying “you can’t believe in the other candidates” as opposed to showing the country why they are fit to lead.

Enrique Peña Nieto, who according to the latest BGC-Excelsior poll leads the race at 50 percent of voter preference, is doing what he does best: photo-ops with as little speech as possible in the different states he visits. He continues to be the one to beat, though the reason is based more on publicity saturation than substance. Doing what his Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI) does best, towns all over the country are now flooded with enormous billboards showing the candidate as a man of the people, hugging an over-eager supporter.

Josefina Vázquez Mota’s party, the ruling Partido Acción Nacional (PAN), has recently launched a tactical attack toward Peña Nieto’s credibility, running radio and television spots that label him a liar based on commitments made during his tenure as governor of Mexico state and presumably did not deliver on. While this may be effective in bringing Peña Nieto’s numbers down, the campaign does nothing to engage young voters or to build up a constructive conversation on the future of the country. The candidate will likely use the upcoming presidential debate to take a stab at Peña Nieto’s list of undelivered promises.

And Andrés Manuel López Obrador? He’s been gradually abandoning his more moderate stance and become militant and combatant. Slowly but surely, we start to see the López of old. Worried about the growing trend of this election becoming a two-person race and himself being relegated to a respectable—but distant third—player (the same poll places him dropping to 20 percent of voter preference, 9 points behind Vázquez Mota), he has chosen to go back to accusing “the system” of being against him and the PRI and PAN of working together to minimize his participation in the race. Most recent outbursts include saying that the upcoming presidential debate structure somehow favors the PRI candidate and that the current PRI-PAN confrontation over Peña Nieto’s credibility is “a smoke screen to detract attention from Peña Nieto’s campaign spending.”

But the presidential race is not the only reason young people have stopped believing in Mexican democracy. A lot of it has to do with the negligence shown by the Mexican Congress, which has hijacked President Felipe Calderón’s proposed structural reforms for political means and become completely stagnant. Add to this the level of impudence shown by all parties with regard to the candidates they’ve put forward for upcoming legislative elections and you start to see why a low voter turnout is likely in 2012.

The party lists include such individuals as Dolores Padierna, wife of René Bejarano who in 2004 was the subject of a video scandal showing him taking wads of cash from a shady Argentine businessman. There’s also Fernando Larrazabal, the mayor from Monterrey whose brother Jonás until recently presumably ran an extortion scheme charging casinos for their right to operate. Emilio Gamboa was the subject of a political scandal in 2006 due to a leaked phone conversation linking him to child pornographer Kamel Nacif.  With this representing part of the future of Mexico’s Congress, it’s no surprise that young voters want nothing to do with it. 

As a result, Mexican electoral politics have hit rock bottom. The political elite would do well to stop ignoring this important trend and work to regain the public’s trust. Otherwise, Mexico’s emerging democracy could prove to be more fragile than they think.

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.