Mexican Electoral Politics Hit Rock Bottom

Standard

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

Standard

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.

—-

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.

The Credibility Vacuum: Mexico’s 2012 Presidential Race

Standard

Here is a link to my latest article on AQBlog, titled “The Credibility Vacuum: Mexico’s 2012 Presidential Race” , published on Nov 28th, 2011. 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.

—-

No matter the outcome, Mexico’s next president will not have the needed credentials to effectively run this country and neither will the majority parties that compose Congress. Mexico’s political system has entered a credibility vacuum.

These first lines sound fatalist but the real intention here is to prepare and alert the Mexican citizenry of the ever-present need of their active involvement in placing the country on the right track. It has always been simplistic to leave this up to the government and now more than ever, it will be futile to think they would be able to at a federal level.

The 2012 presidential race in Mexico will have three relevant frontrunners: Enrique Peña Nieto (PRI), Andrés Manuel López Obrador (PRD) and if the most recent polls stay the same until February, Josefina Vázquez Mota for PAN.

Vázquez Mota is facing an upstream battle. Of the three, she is the candidate with the least experience, the least media exposure and she has never occupied a publicly-elected government position. Moreover, she carries with her allegiance to a party which in the eyes of many, has failed to capitalize on the democratic transition. The political cost of Vicente Fox’ dormant presidency and Felipe Calderón’s war on drugs-related fatalities puts her in the worst position to win the race. Recent state elections in Estado de México, Coahuila, Nayarit, and Michoacán where the PRI came out victorious, foreshadow PAN’s likely inability to maintain the presidency after 2012. On the off-chance that she could pull it off, Vázquez Mota would govern with a PRI-majority Congress, which most likely would hinder her ability to put forth any relevant changes (same as what happened to Vicente Fox). Vázquez Mota may be the right woman for the job, but she’s in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Though López Obrador’s abandoning of his divisive rhetoric from 2006 gained him a second attempt at the presidency from leftist parties (against my forecasting, I might add), today his flip-flopping positions make him the least credible candidate. His impeachment when he headed the Mexico City government, his irresponsible indebting of the city for his populist gains and his sketchy financing for the past five years make his track record and his current platform incompatible. Moreover, those with a bit of memory will not forgive his utter disregard for the rule of law during the last post-electoral period. 

In the last elections Calderón was able to beat López not because of votes for the PAN candidate but because Calderón was perceived as the “useful vote” for people who wanted to keep a radical López out of the presidency at all costs.  Ironically, with the PAN’s current weak position and López’ confrontational delivery toning down, in 2012 he will likely be the recipient of many anti-PRI votes, possibly enough to get him to power.

If this is the case, Mexico will have yet another demagogue as president; one who has promised too much to too many divergent interest groups in order to try to get a critical mass of support; he will face a real challenge in being able to deliver. His bold statements on creating “a Republic of Love,” getting the armed forces off the streets in six months and creating 4 million jobs in six weeks have been called irresponsible by respected analysts. Add to this the fact that like Vázquez, his every move would most likely be blocked by a PRI Congress.

The third player is Enrique Peña Nieto, the custom-built candidate from the PRI. Called out by López as a “junk-food candidate,” he currently has the favored standing position to win the presidency, though it will most likely end up being a very close race.

Peña’s slick young look and his recent marriage to soap opera star Angélica Rivera equate the couple to the Ken and Barbie of Mexican politics. But what does Peña represent? For one, the return of a party where over 70 years of absolute rule is considered by many the root cause of the current organized crime proliferation in the country. PRI has been gaining ground at a state and municipal level under the banner of “we did know how to govern” and “we controlled (co-opted) the narcos” because citizens have not been able to grasp the benefits of a transition in power and they are tired of the war on drugs.

Related to this, President Calderón has been candid in warning Mexico of the possibility of collusion between drug lords and the PRI should they regain power. As recent allegations of organized crime intrusions favoring PRI in elections in Michoacán show, Calderón’s warnings may not be so far-fetched. Peña Nieto’s candidacy is also tainted by the fact that he will run under a coalition with the PANAL (Partido Nuevo Alianza) supported by Elba Esther Gordillo, president of the SNTE, the combatant teacher’s union and one of Mexico’s most despised political characters.  Rumors of Carlos Salinas de Gortari backing Peña’s candidacy and accusations of Peña’s involvement in the death of his first wife, Monica Petrelini, also warn us of the return of the PRI of old. In addition, TV media moguls and other oligarchs will side with Peña Nieto in order to push him into Los Pinos.

In laymen’s terms Mexicans will have a choice in 2012 to vote for the woman who can’t win, the demagogue who can’t deliver or the pretty boy with shady friends.  In Mexico we are used to voting for the lesser of evils but this time it might be the hardest choice of all.  Given the current scenario, the real challenge will be for the rest of the relevant actors (private enterprise, NGOs, special interest groups, media, universities, trustworthy state and municipal authorities, etc.) to build and achieve progress in spite of the credibility vacuum at the top of the government… and hope for a better race in 2018.

*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.