Mexican Presidential Elections 2018

Thomas Bell, Staff Writer

In 1990, Peruvian writer and Nobel Prize winner Mario Vargas Llosa famously said that “México es una dictadura perfecta”, or “Mexico is a perfect dictatorship”.  The relevance of his statement is not immediately apparent.  The country, after all, has had elections since the implementation of the current Constitution in 1917.  However, those elections have not proven to be democratic.  In 1929 the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI for the Spanish acronym, won the presidential elections as the Revolutionary National Party.  Their victory claimed over 93% of the vote.  Starting with another PRI win in 1934, there were federal elections to select the new President of the Republic every six years.  With regular elections and a constant flow of new presidents, as the incumbent could not (and still cannot) run for reelection, Mexico possessed the appearance of an efficient democracy.  But the political history of the country, leading up to the present day, reveals the characteristics of dictatorship and corruption that Mario Vargas Llosa referenced in 1990.

The success of the Institutional Revolutionary Party in 1929 would turn out to be long-lasting.  In every presidential election between 1929 and 1994, PRI won, and oftentimes in unanimous landslides.  Before 1988, all PRI candidates won with more than 70 percent of the vote.  This was because opposition forces did not have the same opportunities to participate, with PRI dominating the government, news infrastructure, and the economy.  In fact, former President Miguel de la Madrid said in 2009 that PRI lost the presidential election in 1988, and committed massive electoral fraud to fake the victory.  In 2000, though, hope finally seemed to be on the horizon.  The National Action Party, or PAN, won the presidential election, and there was tremendous optimism that the country would change.  But after twelve years, conditions in Mexico had not improved, and the current President, Enrique Peña Nieto, won as a PRI candidate in 2012.

After years of governmental corruption and vast instability, a new party of the left, Morena, has the chance to contend for the presidency.  The elections this year could fundamentally change the country, and Morena could be a powerful new force for the political history of the nation.  Morena is a new party, unlike its competition.  It was founded in 2012 by Andrés Manuel López Obrador, or AMLO as he is called.  AMLO is a popular politician in Mexico, and was the head of the Government of the Federal District (Mexico City) from 2000 to 2005.  In 2006 and 2012, AMLO was a candidate in the presidential elections with the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), a leftist group.  But with Morena, AMLO is seeking to introduce a new movement to Mexican politics, separate from the old parties.  He is a populist, and his rhetoric is often anti-establishment.  Additionally, AMLO has voiced strong criticism of the American President, Donald Trump.  Enrique Peña Nieto has not had the same vigor in his opinions on Trump.  Ironically enough, the fiery rhetoric of the U.S. President can help AMLO, as many Mexicans experience a surge in nationalism against what they perceive as a threat to their society and culture.  Regardless of left vs. right wing, Morena offers a new approach to politics and governance.  With the legacy of corruption in PRI and PAN, a substantive change is necessary for the development of Mexican democracy.

But a simple argument against corruption will not be enough.  The party’s liberalism would represent a change from the policies of PRI and PAN.  PRI is a centrist party, but uses nationalism and a level of corruption to govern.  PAN is a conservative party, but they failed to change the basic structure of the country in their twelve years in power.  Morena’s platform offers a departure in ideology, which could prove popular.  For example, they want to improve access to basic public services.  Mexico’s healthcare system is universal, but the quality of care is well below that of the United States and Europe.  There are not many public hospitals, with the majority being reserved for people with private access.  In a country where there is a tremendous amount of poverty, it is necessary to improve access to medical care.  The party also wants free access to education and improved academic standards and quality.  Especially in southern Mexico, the education infrastructure is weak, with only about 45% of students completing high school.  Additionally, only 25% of students go on to complete their studies at a university.  With a sluggish national economy, the country needs more young people with an education to compete in the global economy.  Morena also wants access to the Internet for the entire population as a right of citizenship.  This would again be a sign of modernization and could contribute to Mexico’s economic competitiveness.

But none of these proposals matter if Morena cannot win.  This is the problem that other parties have had throughout Mexico’s long political history.  They could very well have the support of the people, but corruption could lead to electoral fraud.  During the era of PRI domination, the incumbent president selected the candidate of the party, leading to elections that were largely a formality.  This process was called “el dedazo”, which has no direct translation in English but essentially refers to the unilateral selection of the next leader by the incumbent.  With the current President being a member of PRI, there is a level of concern that history could repeat itself.

However, the polls suggest an opportunity for Morena and AMLO.    Enrique Peña Nieto is the most unpopular President in recent history, with an approval rate of 6%.  In an October survey by El Universal, a Mexican new agency, Morena had 24.0% support in the upcoming election.  This polled higher than PAN’s 14.3% and PRI’s 13.9%, the two parties that could realistically pose a threat to Morena.  The creation of alliances, though, can lead to different results, something which has been done a number of times in the past.  Therein lies the danger to Morena and AMLO.  Morena has at this point formed an alliance with the Labor Party (PT), a group that supports socialism and anti-imperialism.  But PT is not a very large party, with no members in the legislature or serving as governor of a state.  AMLO was the PRD’s candidate, but they have formed an alliance with PAN, a right-wing party, and the Citizen’s Movement (MC), a left-wing party.  This alliance is not politically consistent with two parties on the left and a large conservative party.  In what likely amounts to a simply vote-grabbing ploy, the substantially sized PAN and medium-sized PRD combined could defeat Morena and PT.  Besides these two, however, it is crucial to remember that PRI is the dominant party of government.  They will likely create an alliance with the medium-sized Green Ecologist Party of Mexico (PVEM), and two small groups in the New Alliance (PANAL) and Social Encounter Party (PES).  With a new standard-bearer in José Antonio Meade, PRI can be competitive in 2018.  It should be noted that PES is actively considering abandoning its alliance with PRI and joining with Morena, although this likely will not impact the polls in any substantial way.  El Financiero, a Mexican newspaper, published a survey of support for the alliances in November, and the results were closer than a grouping of the individual parties.  Morena-PT had 24% support, PRI-PVEM-PANAL-PES had 22%, and PAN-PRD-MC had 18%.  With 21% who said “none” and 15% who said “I don’t know”, any of the alliances could win in 2018.  But if Morena can detail the corruption and incompetence of PRI and PAN, especially relating to their time governing the country, they could earn the support of the Mexican people.

The political history of Mexico is a long saga of corruption and fraud.  When PAN won in 2000, undoing a decades-long regime, the change that many Mexicans expected did not take place.  Now, Morena and its leader have an opportunity to present a new legacy for Mexico.  With the nationalism and corruption of PRI and PAN, the country has not taken its place as a great power in the international community.  In a new regime, with more access to education, healthcare, and the Internet, Mexicans could develop the economy, the political system, and society that they have craved since 1929.  And, after nearly a century of waiting, the long-lasting “perfect dictatorship” could finally come to an end.

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