Foreign Policy / Politics

2012 Mexican Presidential Election Primer

Mexico’s three main political parties have selected their respective candidates for the July 1, 2012 presidential contest. The favorite appears to be Enrique Peña Nieto, the former governor of the state of Mexico, from the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). The PRI dominated Mexican politics for over 70 years until 2000, when it failed to win the presidency. Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the former mayor of Mexico City and runner-up in Mexico’s 2006 presidential election, will be the nominee from the Revolutionary Democratic Party (PRD). Obrador ran under the PRD banner in the 2006 presidential election and lost the hotly contested election by one percent of the popular vote. The National Action Party (PAN) has nominated Josefina Vásquez Mota as their candidate. She was Mexico’s first female secretary of social development, a Cabinet level position, under former President Vincente Fox and Mexico’s first female education secretary under current President Felipe Calderon. Vásquez Mota also served as a federal congresswoman for two years, until she stepped down last year to begin her presidential campaign.

A January poll by Mexico’s Consulta Mitofsky found that 41 percent of voters supported Peña Nieto, 23 percent supported Vásquez Mota, and 18 percent favored Obrador. However, the poll also showed that 18 percent of voters were still undecided. This is not an insurmountable lead, but after hearing all three candidates present their platforms during their recent visits to Washington, DC (Peña Nieto at Georgetown University, Obrador at the Woodrow Wilson Center, and Vásquez Mota at the Inter-American Dialogue), I believe that Peña Nieto currently stands to win comfortably unless there is an unexpected change of circumstances.

Before examining the platforms of these three candidates, one must understand Mexico’s current electoral climate. There are two main issues that confront Mexico. First, a raging drug war, which pits transnational criminal organizations (TCOs) against each other and against the Mexican government and armed forces. Second, the Mexican economy is in need of growth after being adversely affected by the United States’ economic recession. The three candidates have put forth their platforms for improving the lives of Mexican citizens with these two key issues in mind.

Peña Nieto focused on the economy during his remarks. He declared that Mexico needed consistent and stable economic growth before it can address issues like security, education, health care, and alleviating poverty. He proposed a variety of economic reforms to achieve such growth, and advocated the expansion of trade between the United States and Mexico. Peña Nieto also stated that establishing citizen security would be one of the focal points of his presidency. He astutely addressed the common concern that a PRI victory would return Mexico to an era of political clientelism by stating that he wants to improve Mexico’s democratic system.

Obrador favors a platform based on the views of the National Regeneration Movement (MORENA). Obrador asserted that MORENA believes that “violence [in Mexico] originates with the lack of development.” According to him, the solution to the daily brutality that plagues Mexico is a vast array of socio-economic initiatives. He is a proponent of MORENA’s three-step plan to generate revenue and stop wasting resources: first, implement a plan of judicial austerity; second, make sincere and transparent efforts to uncover, expose, and prosecute corruption; and, after the first two elements are in place, introduce fiscal reform.  Obrador added that this platform would allow his government to rescue the young people of Mexico and offer them legal employment options and improve Mexico’s future. He eschewed the idea of direct confrontation of the TCOs, but indicated that he was willing to explore a variety of options to weaken their influence and ensure citizen security.

Obrador acknowledged the importance of improving US-Mexico relations. He stated that throughout its history, the relationship between the US and Mexico has been difficult and complex, but pointed out that there have also been periods of cooperation and joint development. He cited the Braceros Program of the 1940s-1960s (a diplomatic agreement between the US and Mexico that allowed US employers to hire temporary contract laborers from Mexico), US economic bailout of Mexico after the devaluation of the Mexican peso in 1994, and continued growth of bilateral trade. He noted that the current relationship is primarily focused on border security, specifically the issues of violence in Mexico and migration. Obrador argued that while the US should provide law enforcement and military cooperation, it should shift its primary focus from security to Mexican domestic development and that sovereignty and independence must be preserved in his proposal for the bilateral development of Mexico.

Vásquez Mota’s platform also focused on socio-economic development. She stated that she has four main priorities for Mexico’s development. First, she would establish a strong, efficacious democratic state to serve as a foundation for all other projects and initiatives. Second, she would stabilize Mexico’s economy through labor reform to help stabilize the Mexican economy. Third, she emphasized that education reform is an indispensible priority for the development of Mexico. Fourth, she would establish and enforce a uniform concept of justice, which extends beyond laws to general rules for society. Vásquez Mota firmly stated that she would not negotiate with the TCOs and would impose harsh consequences for any organization or person that caused harm to the state or innocent citizens. Regarding US-Mexico relations, she stated that the relationship becomes more important every day. The two most important areas she highlighted were economic and security issues.

Currently, Peña Nieto holds a commanding lead in the polls (43 percent to 23 percent for Vásquez Mota, and 18 percent for Obrador) and I foresee him winning the Mexican presidency in July. All three candidates are campaigning on the same two central issues, but Peña Nieto already seems to have a leg up. After monitoring the electoral climate in Mexico and hearing all three candidates speak, I must conclude that there is only one option for the PAN and the PRD to prevent the PRI from returning to power: cooperation.

Obrador and Vásquez Mota’s platforms both focused on the elimination of corruption and systems of privilege in all sectors of Mexican everyday life. Both candidates also stated that US-Mexican relations are a top priority and that they hope to increase the number and productivity of high-level talks among government officials to continue the growth of bilateral trade. A stable and growing economy was a priority for Obrador and Vásquez Mota, and they both favored improved access to credit and free and fair economic competition. They also both stated that the lack of socio-economic development is the root cause of the violence that plagues Mexico. Neither speaker made any mention of directly confronting the TCOs in any capacity, but there was a shared rejection of the possibility of negotiating with the TCOs. The main difference between the platforms that Obrador and Vásquez Mota have put forth was their specific socio-economic initiatives. However, there was lots of common ground.

This common ground leaves room for Peña Nieto and the PRI to be defeated. In my opinion, only political cooperation between the PAN and the PRD, and possibly coalescing around one of the two candidates, can derail the PRI from regaining the presidency. The shared focus on socio-economic development and lack of desire to undertake another military campaign against the TCOs could allow the PAN and the PRD to work together effectively. Neither speaker took a position contrary to the other; the majority of the differences between the two agendas centered on the importance they afforded US-Mexico relations and over specific initiatives for the agreed-upon need for education and labor reform. However, if they cannot work together, the threat of the return of PRI hegemony probably will grow significantly.

-Max Rava

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