Is Peña Nieto Facing a Mexican Spring?

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Originally published by Americas Quarterly on December 4th, 2014.

Two years ago, Enrique Peña Nieto took office as Mexico’s president, under the banner of a renovated Partido Revolucionario Institucional(PRI) and with a promise of a brighter economic, social and political future.

Only two months after he took office, Thomas L. Friedman remarked on that promise in an article titled “How Mexico Got Back in the Game.” And who can forget Timemagazine’s February 2014 cover, featuring Peña Nieto with the headline “Saving Mexico”? In that feature, author Michael Crowley said that on the security issues, “alarms are being replaced with applause” and that the social, political and economic reforms package steamrolled through a PRI-dominant Congress were preview of great things to come.

The media prematurely started calling this era “Mexico’s moment.” Granted, we are living quite an interesting moment in Mexico’s history, but not for the reasons the 2012 optimists foresaw.

A recent series of events and decisions stemming from the political elite at local, state and federal levels has detonated into what could evolve into a Mexican version of the Arab Spring. In Friedman’s piece, he quoted the president of Monterrey’s Center for Citizen Integration saying that “Once a citizen feels he is not powerless, he can aspire for more change. […] First, the Web democratized commerce, and then it democratized media, and now it is democratizing democracy.”

This is exactly what’s happening. A newly empowered Mexican civil society is reacting and saying enough is enough.

Some of the things I will discuss in this piece are not making their way to mainstream media, or they are being distorted and minimized, but they are gaining momentum in the open forum of Mexican social media—clearly demonstrating the growing divide between institutions and a fed-up and empowered rebellious citizenry.

The apparent state-sponsored mass murder of 43 rural students from Ayotzinapa was not the result of Peña Nieto’s mandate or decisions. The horrible events occurred in the Partido de la Revolución Democrática (PRD)-run state of Guerrero, and the alleged intellectual authors of the massacre where the now-deposed and incarcerated PRD mayor of Iguala,José Luis Abarca, and his wife.

However, the president’s reaction to the crisis is proving to be more than a challenge for his office. Protesters are holding him accountable and expecting answers from him and only him.

When the massacre reached mass media, political groups in the elite saw it as an opportunity to attack their opponents. Two-time presidential candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador called for Peña Nieto’s resignation, saying the president was not equipped to deal with the Ayotzinapa case. The PRI apparatus returned the blow, flooding the Web with a picture of Abarca and López Obrador hugging during a political rally and arguing that the two politicians were not only members of the same political party, but close friends and political allies.

While this game of political finger-pointing was going on, the families of the 43 students—and, quite frankly, most Mexicans—were more interested in what the federal government was doing to advance the investigation and to deliver credible results.

When days turned into months and the public still had no answers, two incidents collided and became a perfect storm for the president.

On November 7, 33 days after the Ayotzinapa students disappeared, Attorney General Jesús Murillo Karam gave a press conference in which he declared that the students’ bodies had been thrown in a mass grave and cremated, citing confessions from local gang members as evidence. Families of the students, who had expected empathy and hope, were instead subjected to a crude account of how their loved ones had been abducted, transported, tortured, maimed and murdered.

Murillo continued to share testimonies of apprehended criminals, describing the way the bodies were doused with gasoline and set ablaze. At the conclusion of the press conference, Murillo dodged questions challenging the credibility of his statements, only to abruptly end the session by getting up from his chair and murmuring “I’ve had enough” (Ya me cansé).

Though Murillo later said that his words were an expression of his frustration with the violence, #Yamecansé immediately became a trending topic on Twitter. Enraged Mexicans shouted they, too, had had enough of the political elite, of organized crime in bed with the government, and of being lied to and patronized.

The second PR disaster came two days later, when journalist Carmen Aristegui uncovered acase of alleged corruption and nepotism involving Peña Nieto’s wife, Angélica Rivera. Aristegui revealed that the construction company Grupo Higa, which had won a  multimillion dollar bid to construct a high-speed rail project in the PRI-governed state of Nuevo León, had also built Rivera’s now famous $7 million “Casa Blanca” mansion.

As if the Casa Blanca accusation wasn’t bad enough, Peña Nieto decided not to directly respond to it. Instead, the strategy from the president’s office was to have the First Lady provide an explanation, in a failed attempt to put distance between the accusation and the president.  The Rivera’s nonsensical YouTube video explanation of how she came to possess enough money to buy the house through acting in telenovelas, created an outcry on social media, showing that nobody bought the First Lady’s explanation. Instead, the video became yet another symbol of the effrontery with which the political class approaches their constituency, stirring up frustration and indignation.

The #Yamecansé and #CasaBlanca hashtags sparked massive social mobilizations and marches in the state of Guerrero, in Mexico City and in major cities across the country and abroad. Some have compared these mass protests with the #YoSoy132 movement of 2012.

The similarity between the two movements is the fact that Peña Nieto is the main target of criticis—but it would be more accurate to compare the current movement with the Arab Spring. #YoSoy132 was fueled by electoral politics, with the goal of preventing Peña Nieto from winning office. After Peña Nieto was elected, the movement did not die completely, but it became more symbolic than effective.

Today, enraged and politically alienated youth are amassing in a more organic way, and their reasons for protesting will not dissipate after electoral polls close. Local, state and federal incompetence and corruption have created more reasons than ever for people to take to the streets and demand a change.

There is no sign of this trend reversing. In fact, all strategies used by the government to tackle the protests only seem to aggravate them.  With accusations of police beating up and arresting peaceful protesters, Peña Nieto’s presentation of a security reformthat would unify local police forces was met with skepticism. The spokesperson for the relatives of the Ayotzinapa victims called the measure “like his words—false,” and a move by Mexico’s lower house of Congress to revise rules on social mobilization (Senate approval pending) was received as a threat to freedom of speech and freedom of movement.

Why aren’t these strategies working? In part, because they were the wrong solutions to begin with. In his recent op-ed in El Economista, the founder and president of the Mexican think tank Instituto de Pensamiento Estratégico Ágora A.C. (IPEA ), Armando Regil Velasco, identified the root cause of the prolonged problem:

“When your moral authority is so fragile, it doesn’t matter what you say. Skepticism will impose itself and little to nothing will be believable. [The Federal government] lacks honesty, courage and determination.”

The Mexican political elite, with Peña Nieto heading the list, has lost whatever  trust the citizenry once had in them. The phrase “more crooked than a politician” has risen to new heights in today’s Mexico, and those brave enough to mobilize are finding more and more reasons to do so as more cases of corruption and inadequacy develop.

After two years of Peña Nieto’s government and with the current social chaos the country is facing, I wonder where those 2012 notions of “Saving Mexico,” “Mexico’s moment” and “getting back in the game” have ended up. The best place to look for them is probably in the gutter.

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¿Por quién votarías?

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Hay muchos factores que determinan el voto de una persona en las elecciones presidenciales. Los factores son distintos para cada quién y tienen diferentes pesos.

En México hay quienes votan por el candidato y por su percepción de su “calidad humana” (sí, entre comillas porque la atribución a calidad humana de todo político que llega a estar en nivel de competir por un puesto de elección popular en México tendría que estar en tela de juicio).

Otros votan por la plataforma o proyecto de cierto candidato. Los que siguen esta vía generalmente acaban decepcionados al medir promesa contra mandato. Los políticos mexicanos son especialistas en promesas incumplidas.

Otros más favorecen a un partido en particular, ya que se sienten ideológicamente identificados con los valores que lo respaldan teóricamente. O en el peor de los casos los que votan por partido lo hacen “porque me gustan sus colores”.

Hay un grupo más que vota por “el menos peor”, evaluando implicaciones de la llegada de un candidato versus otro, la composición del Congreso con el que le tocará convivir y atendiendo fobias respecto a lo que sucedería en torno a un voto útil y sus intenciones de que cierto candidato no llegue al poder.

Y así como éstas, hay muchísimas más razones por las que definimos nuestro voto.

El día de hoy estuve pensando mucho en el momento político, económico y social por el que pasa México y me surgió un cuestionamiento que muchas veces he visto en los medios, pero que hoy más que nunca, me preocupa la conclusión a la que llego para responderlo:

Si las elecciones presidenciales fueran el día de hoy, ¿por quién votarías?

Me tocó ver los aciertos y desaciertos de dos Presidentes del PAN. Fui testigo de cómo desaprovecharon su ventana en el poder y no fueron capaces de contrarrestar o negociar con Congresos en los que no tenían mayoría. Vi la miopía detrás de su administración de una supuesta guerra contra las drogas y la manera en que el crimen organizado los superó sin vuelta atrás. No los culpo por la manera en que recibieron el país tras más de 70 años en los que más que pactar con el narco, se co-gobernó con él. Los culpo por su inhabilidad de transicionar a un modelo en que no nos diera miedo cruzar la puerta de nuestras casas. Me tocó ver cómo al ser derrotado y abrirle la puerta de regreso a la bestia, en lugar de reagruparse y armar una estrategia de concentración y fortalecimiento, el PAN se desmoronó al punto de que hoy no tiene un líder que pudiera considerar ni candidato ni presidenciable.

Me tocó ver al viejo PRI y al nuevo PRI. Me tocó ver la forma en que hoy “disentir” es una palabra prohibida en el Gobierno Federal. Me tocó ver el regreso y la exacerbación de viejos vicios y toxicidades de nuestra nación de antaño. Me tocó la dictadura perfecta reloaded y los escándalos con sus respectivos deslindes. Me tocó ver la represión en manos de un grupo que ha sabido estirar la liga y faltarle completamente al respeto a las personas que gobierna, llevándolas al punto del hartazgo y la frustración. Me tocó ver a este partido sembrando en las nuevas generaciones un nivel de alienación, resignación y rechazo al quehacer político que genera una completa desconexión e incapacidad de trabajo conjunto efectivo entre sociedad civil y autoridades.  Me tocó conocer niveles de descaro que no sabía existían en la condición humana.

Me tocó ver a un líder moral de un partido de izquierda decirle a su actual Comité Ejecutivo que debería renunciar y que su partido ya no sirve. Me tocó ver cómo de dicho partido emanaron personas que hoy son señaladas en Guerrero y Morelia como criminales y la irresponsable respuesta institucional a dichos señalamientos por parte del partido que los llevó al poder. Me tocó ver cómo al dejar de ser opción viable, uno de los mayores bastiones del PRD, hambriento y embriagado por su sueño de poder, decidió fundar un nuevo modelo de idolatría a su persona y propagar un discurso gastado y destructivo. Me tocó ver cómo el romanticismo detrás del pensamiento de izquierda hoy se traduce a facciones descarriadas, que aspiran a provocar mayor caos e inestabilidad con el único propósito de hacer así más probable su llegada al poder, por regla de eliminación.

Me toca ver los gritos y reclamos por justicia, así como las exigencias de renuncia al actual mandatario. Y no es que quiera que renuncie o que no renuncie esa persona por la que no voté y no votamos la mayoría de los mexicanos (con o sin fraude o monederos Monex).  El mayor problema es que HOY, buscando dentro del espectro partidista, simplemente no veo ni partidos ni posibles candidatos ni figuras presidenciables. Hoy en la clase política de México, ni siquiera encuentro al “menos peor.” Si las elecciones presidenciales fueran el día de hoy, ¿por quién votarías? POR NADIE.

Sí, sí me dueles México. Exactamente tres chingos.

Peña Nieto’s Challenges: From Teacher Strikes to Energy Reform

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Here is a link to my latest article on AQBlog, titled “Peña Nieto’s Challenges: From Teacher Strikes to Energy Reform“, published on August 29th, 2013. 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 first nine months of Peña’s administration have kept the press busy and all of the country’s eyes and ears focused on what will happen next. He’s been characterized as bold, action-oriented and dynamic but clearly, not a team player.

He was celebrated by many (yours truly included) in February when he presented an ambitious and much needed education reform but disappointed just as many after having this effort easily thwarted by militant and disgruntled unionized teachers from the Coordinadora Nacional de Trabajadores de la Educación (CNTE), which has taken Mexico City hostage in the last week to avoid needed secondary laws to enact the reform passing through Congress.

The inability to prevent and the lack of resolve to disperse a non-justified blockage of Congress as well as a blockade of the city’s main arteries—including those giving access to the airport and the Zócalo—has proven once again that political leaders are taking decisions not based on the greater good, the rule of law or the citizenry’s interests, but on a political agenda serviced by interest groups holding more power than they should and unable to cooperate with each other.

Mismanagement of this situation could soon spark violence and create a larger-than-ideological divide. The affected citizenry in Mexico City will only stand so much. In a recent poll by BCG-Excelsior, 52 percent of Mexicans stated that they are so fed up with the CNTE’s irrational resistance to the education reform and their militant actions that they would justify use of public force to disperse the picketers.

And while the teachers take to the streets, both Peña Nieto and the city’s government cower out of taking necessary action because of the political cost it would imply. Mexico City is not the only thing that’s paralyzed because of this—a broken education system puts the nation’s future talent pool at risk.  

The other current hot topic in the president’s agenda is energy reform. As recently described by Christian Gomez on AS/COA, “the proposal includes constitutional changes that would open up Pemex, the 75-year-old state oil monopoly, to profit-sharing contracts and foreign investment.”

This new notion of natural resources no longer belonging exclusively to the nation poses a huge shift in paradigm. Reactions from the nation’s Left include accusations related to autonomy, national patrimony and the role of government vs. private investors in extraction and having access to revenues from one of the nation’s most important sources of income. The opposition understands that PEMEX’s inefficiencies and the plague of corruption need to be addressed but they propose that a problem should not be fixed by creating another one.

One of the most respected voices from the Left, Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas, has recently stated that both PEMEX and CFE (federal electricity company) can become highly productive without having to edit the Constitution and without allowing foreign and/or private hands in the nation’s riches. If national patrimony is challenged due to reforms to articles 27 and 28 of the Mexican Constitution, Cárdenas has warned he would call for nationwide protests and he would even take to the streets along with López Obrador’s Morena (National Regeneration) movement.

Given its current party composition, Peña can easily get approval for the energy reform in Congress but he would be naïve to think that this is the only hurdle he needs to jump and he is doing a terrible job at trying to get public buy-in to this proposal through vague infographics on TV.

If there is possibility for effective energy reform, an open and inclusive debate needs to take place. This topic is not one that his team should be discussing behind closed doors and the hard questions will require real answers, not 20-second TV spots.

Peña’s government has been characterized by a “my way or the highway” attitude which is an easier temptation to fall into than trying to build consensus in a country as complex and fragmented as Mexico. This dictatorial style is only possible because of the fact that PRI has a stellar position both in Congress and in the State governments to push its agenda forward, something neither former Presidents Fox nor Calderón had. However, Peña would do well in understanding that his constituency is not limited to the political parties or even the power elites.

Organized teachers have already proven what they can do in Mexico City given enough motivation. Sparked by national patrimony rhetoric, larger, non-organized social mobilizations could easily flare up in different key cities in Mexico and cause larger havoc. As former U.S. Ambassador to Mexico Tony Garza recently wrote, “these red flags, so to speak, are especially relevant given the influence and disruptive potential of many of today’s social movements. The eruption of mass street protests in Brazil is just one recent example of a government being forced to change direction on a policy initiative and find a way to rapidly and constructively respond to the desires, often inchoate, of a newly emboldened and empowered population. It’s a cautionary tale that begins with frustration and finds expression in mass action.”

Even when theoretically, Peña could powerball his reforms forward, both him and the PRI need to wake up and understand that they cannot be the only voice to determine the nation’s destiny. Vargas Llosa sarcastically called the previous PRI era “the perfect dictatorship” but today’s Mexico will not stand for a return of that so-called “perfect” model. Peña needs to learn to play well with others.

Pero el bono sexenal nunca se traspapela…

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NOTA PUBLICADA HOY EN ELNORTE.COM, comentarios personales entre corchetes.

Dejan San Lázaro dándose regalazo

Cd. de México  (1 de junio 2012).- Los siete grupos parlamentarios que integran la Cámara de Diputados [No el PRI, no el PAN, no el PRD. TODOS] se repartieron un regalo de fin de legislatura por 230.3 millones de pesos, cuya distribución en cada una de las bancadas se hará a discreción.

De esta bolsa, al PRI, como partido mayoritario, le tocarán 98.5 millones de pesos; al PAN 60.5, al PRD 32, al Partido Verde 14, al PT 10.3, al Panal 7.7 y a Movimiento Ciudadano 7.3 millones.

El monto de 230.3 millones es una asignación extra integrada a las partidas de “subvenciones”, fijas y variables, que se dan a los partidos políticos y cuya comprobación de gasto se hace sólo con la firma del coordinador parlamentario, o quien él designe, sin que tengan la obligación de justificar en qué se gastaron los recursos [QUE HUEVOTES, ¿NO?].

En este caso, el argumento para entregar los recursos fue que se necesitaba apoyar las “labores legislativas” [¿CUALES?] de las bancadas , cuando ya no hay actividad parlamentaria en la Cámara baja, y para saldar el finiquito de los trabajadores de cada fracción.

 
El coordinador de los diputados del PAN, Carlos Alberto Pérez Cuevas, señaló que ignoraba la aplicación de los montos entregados a su fracción porque tomó el cargo a fines de abril, y la autorización de los mismos se hizo en febrero y marzo, cuando el coordinador era Francisco Ramírez Acuña.

“Sobre cuántos empleados se van o no se van, ese es un tema de mayor detalle, (por) que todavía no ha acabado la Legislatura”, manifestó.

Cuestionado sobre el tema, el vicecoordinador del PRI, José Ramón Martel, dijo desconocer el destino del dinero y cuántos empleados hay en su fracción.

“No te puedo contestar en cuanto a datos específicos del número del personal, no soy el director de personal de la Cámara, no soy el administrativo de mi fracción”, dijo.

Heliodoro Díaz, Diputado del PRI e integrante del Comité de Administración, explicó que la referencia a atender pasivos labores en las bancadas se refiere a los finiquitos del personal que durante los tres años laboró para cada fracción parlamentaria.

Sin embargo, el legislador no respondió cuántos empleados en total serán liquidados, e incluso dijo desconocer cuántas personas serán liquidadas en la bancada del PRI. [En síntesis, aquí nadie vio, nadie supo. Que rápido aprenden de nuestros candidatos presidenciales a deslindarse de todo…]

¿El efecto QuadriNader?

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En el 2000, Ralph Nader fue candidato presidencial en Estados Unidos por una coalición de partidos verdes. Ese fue el año del controvertido resultado en la contienda que llevó a cuestionar el sistema de colegio electoral en Estados Unidos y acabó poniendo a George W. Bush en la presidencia. Era evidente que Nader no tenía posibilidades de ser elegido PERO su participación sí fue instrumental para (sin que fuera su objetivo) quitarle votos a Al Gore y poner en evidencia una vez más, lo poderoso que puede ser el razonamiento del “voto útil”. De haber sido una batalla entre dos candidatos solamente, Gore no sólo hubiera obtenido la mayoría del voto popular sino también la presidencia.

Ayer presenciamos el primer debate presidencial de las elecciones del 2012 en México. Aunque fue entretenido en su momento, no quiero meterme en los siguientes temas a profundidad (por ahora):

  • La edecarne Playmate del IFE
  • El formato pobre en términos de tiempos y sistema de elección de preguntas
  • La pésima producción del programa
  • La marihuana que parecía haberse fumado la presentadora Lupita
  • Las pobres elecciones en corbata de 2 de los candidatos

Esto es lo que sí quisiera discutir:

Prácticamente todos los medios y redes sociales están repartiendo puntos positivos entre Quadri y Vázquez Mota. Aparentemente quien más provecho le sacó al ejercicio fue Gabriel Quadri, que se pone después de un par de horas de argumentos y propuestas, en el mapa electoral. No, Gabriel Quadri no será Presidente PERO ayer sí ocurrieron un par de cosas que vale la pena considerar:

  • Es muy probable que el PANAL mantenga su registro. De ser así, el intelectual habrá hecho su chamba y la maestra estará muy agradecida.
  • Los jovenes que habían perdido esperanza en la contienda regresarán a las urnas para darle su voto al “candidato hipster.” Creo que su mayor apoyo vendrá de personas que de otra manera no hubieran votado o hubieran anulado su voto que de gente que haya cambiado de candidato preferido.
  • La composición porcentual del resultado en las elecciones habrá cambiado significativamente ya que probablemente Quadri superará el estimado de 1% de los votos.
  • Quadri tiene garantizado un futuro político si quisiera tomar la opción. Con o sin el PANAL, el candidato mostró madera para tener posibilidades de ganar una posición en la Cámara de Diputados o hasta el Senado.

Nadie puede negar que la estrategia de Quadri funcionó. Es cierto, es más fácil ser el candidato al que nadie va a pelar ni atacar cuando estás en un debate… pero en las elecciones pasadas Roberto Campa estaba en una situación similar y no la supo aprovechar. En lo personal Quadri no me impresionó pero puedo entender por qué a muchos sí. Fue uno de dos candidatos que trajo propuestas a la mesa en lugar de palabras vacías. Entre los cuatro es definitivamente el más elocuente y al no tener trayectoria política pasada, no tiene cola que le pisen.

Despúes de lo que vimos anoche, la verdader pregunta interesante es: ¿será la participación de Quadri una versión mexicana del efecto Nader y de ser así, a cuál de los otros candidatos le perjudica más su éxito en el debate de ayer?

Estimados y siempre valorados visitantes de este espacio, ¿qué piensan al respecto?

De antemano les agradezco su participación y compartir este post para que tengamos buena muestra en esta discusión.

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.