March 30th marked the start of campaigning for this summer’s Mexican presidential election in which 88 million eligible voters will decide who will lead the country of over 137 million until 2024. Unlike many representative democracies, where leaders can serve two or more terms in office, Mexican presidents are limited to one six year term.
The election, which will take place on July 1st, will also elect the country’s federal legislators in the Mexico’s bicameral Congress. Whoever among the four candidates running wins the presidency will replace the embattled Enrique Pena Nieto, whose approval rating was just 17% this past January.
Pena Nieto’s party, the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), has ruled the country for most of its post-revolutionary history, beginning in 1920, and was returned to power after two conservative leaders, Vicente Fox and Felipe Calderon of the National Action Party (PAN), broke the PRI monopoly on the presidency for two consecutive terms from 2000 to 2012.
While there were high hopes in some quarters for Pena Nieto’s presidency and the Mexican economy has grown at a respectable rate, seemingly intractable violent crime, a lack of justice and compassion for 43 students disappeared and presumably murdered in Iguala, Guerrero in late September of 2016 and allegations of corruption, up to and including the First Lady, have hobbled him and his party.
The election is also taking place against the backdrop of a hostile Trump presidency in the country’s northern neighbor. Thus, whoever becomes president will probably have to renegotiate or pull out of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) with that country and Canada, although there is always the variable of November’s mid-term elections in the United States.
Possibly fearing losing control of at least the lower house of the U.S. Congress and with Mexico’s leadership up in the air this summer, the U.S. President has recently pushed for a May 1st deadline for NAFTA renegotiations, saying that if an accord isn’t reached both Mexico and Canada will face tariffs already imposed on aluminum and steel exports from other nations.
Although the U.S. President may not see it this way, a NAFTA renegotiation or an end to the trade deal altogether may not cause too much consternation among many ordinary Mexican citizens.
As explained by Forbes, “During the NAFTA era presidents from Mexico’s centrist Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) and right-of-center National Action Party (PAN) have embraced a corrupt form of neoliberal capitalism that has focused on investing heavily in industry in export sectors in the north of the country but has done substantially less to foster real development initiatives in the the country’s impoverished south.”
It is, at least in part, this discontent that could bring a left-wing populist to power, sure to create an interesting dynamic with the United States in the years ahead.
A four way race with one clear favorite
Leading the pack of four candidates is the leader of the MORENA (National Regeneration Movement) party, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (often called AMLO), a left wing populist and former mayor of Mexico City who came very close to winning in the last two federal elections. According to a poll by Parametria in early March, the 64 year old Lopez Obrador was 14% ahead of his closest challenger, Ricardo Anaya, the PAN candidate, who was at 21%.
AMLO is also benefiting from his forceful opposition to the rhetoric of the U.S. president who has done immense damage to public opinion of the United States among Mexicans. In 2015, 66% of the country’s citizens held a positive view of the United States and by October of 2017 this had almost completely reversed, with 65% holding a negative view.
While Lopez Obrador has, as part of his initial 10 campaign proposals, made some big promises including ending corruption, paying for higher education for poor youth and doubling pensions for seniors, some, like the proposed decentralization of the federal government and ending the nationalization of the energy industry seem possible.
He has also called for the country to work towards agricultural sustainability. Little known outside of Mexico, NAFTA has been a disaster for, “nearly five million farmers [who] lost their livelihoods, unable to compete with subsidized corn from the U.S.”
Anaya, the youngest candidate in the race at 39, is also engaged in a battle on the right with a former first lady, Margarita Zavala (wife of former president Felipe Calderon), who is currently in fourth place and is running as an independent. As the Spanish language Milenio reported, Zavala recently complained Anaya, who has been accused of money laundering as part of a land deal, lies so much that he borders on having “multiple personalities”.
The split on the right might be expected to benefit the former finance minister, Jose Antonio Meade, 49, running as the PRI candidate, who has also been attacking Anaya on the corruption allegations, causing the latter to accuse the PRI of “a concerted campaign… to discredit him”.
Meade, who was also a finance minister under PAN’s Calderon and held the same post after serving as foreign minister under Pena Nieto, has tried to position himself as less wedded to party politics and more of a man of the people than his previous boss. It’s a strategy that doesn’t seem to be working, as Carlos Bravo Regidor of the Center for Research and Teaching in Economics told The Guardian, the choice was “part of a formula to make the PRI candidate acceptable but it seems to be the other way around – [the] PRI brand is tainting him.”
Along with revived charges from all sides that AMLO is going to turn Mexico into Venezuela, it appears that the current campaign is going to be one of the most personal in memory. It may also be one of the most important in the country’s history, as whoever wins will face not only an unsympathetic President Trump, but also out of control crime and the continuing corruption of public officials and authorities that this entails.
As reported by USA Today at the end of February, “Mexico had the most murders on record in 2017, with 29,158 homicides. The homicide rate in the first two months of 2018 was already up 21% over the same period last year.”
The Russians are coming!
As part of the long tradition of the American media and political class making everything about themselves, many mainstream outlets have already begun to worry about potential Russian interference in the Mexican election, much as they accused Venezuela of interfering in 2012 to help AMLO.
Leading the charge, The Atlantic Monthly in February published an article by David Weiss titled “Are Mexico’s Elections Russia’s Next Target?” in which he breaks down what he sees as a growing campaign of interference from the Kremlin.
After referencing Spanish language versions of Russian state media arms RT and Sputnik, which Weiss tells us are supportive of Lopez Obrador and MORENA, he delves into conspiracy theory territory, saying that a new electronic voting system for Mexicans living abroad, “may be vulnerable to outside manipulation of voting results.”
Even more paranoid, we are told that the dislike of Mexicans for corruption, which has crippled the country’s civic life, might be used to “spread real or fake” allegations about candidates, “an area where Russia excels – collecting and leveraging kompromat.” (Emphasis in the original)
For his part, AMLO, who, if he wins the election will probably face public charges of Russian help has publicly laughed at the idea, appearing in a video where he pretends he is waiting for a submarine filled with gold to arrive from Russia.
Seizing on these allegations of possible Russian interference also picked up by The Washington Post among others, the PRI released a statement saying, “International media are documenting Russian and Venezuelan interests supporting Lopez.”
I don’t subscribe to the widespread belief in the devious effectiveness of the Russian government and intelligence agencies, but, in the case of Mexico, Russian authorities are probably even less able to navigate the deep divisions and unique cultures there than they are in the United States or the major powers of Europe, which, after all, export their cultural products to the rest of the world to a degree that no Latin American country can match. With history as a guide, it seems more plausible that any interference in the Mexican election would come from north of the border or from the PRI and other parties, who are reportedly using both bots and human trolls to try and influence voters.
Even in the case that Lopez Obrador wins the election, just as in other democracies, he will face opposition from other legislators in Mexico’s Congress that will make it difficult for him to enact his more ambitious plans
After almost 25 years of austerity and failed neoliberal policies, the gap between the majority of Mexicans and the country’s obscenely wealthy elite has only widened. For the vast majority of Mexico’s working people and rural poor, many of whom will cast their votes for AMLO in the hope of change, bread and butter issues, not rumors of Russian perfidy, will have the biggest influence on their vote.