MEXICO ELECTION – “The PRI is not dead”

One small-town PRI MP tells this blog what his party needs to do after its historic defeat

As the car horns blared, loudspeakers boomed and thousands of people poured into the Zócalo main square in Mexico City on Sunday evening, Andrés Manuel López Obrador must have been pinching himself. He was president-elect, at the third time of asking, and there was unbridled joy in the plaza in front of him.

The mood in the camps of the defeated, establishment parties would have been funereal. There are high hopes for López Obrador, or AMLO, and there is no way of knowing yet if he will go down in history as a brilliant leader or another scorned and discarded president. What is certain is that he was carried to victory on the back of both direct support for him and millions of protest votes against the conservative National Action Party (PAN) and the governing Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI).

A street in the town of Jilotepec, north-west of Mexico City, 4 July 2018 / © rosscullen.co.uk

25-year-old federal deputy Rodolfo Nogués Barrajas, a PRI member of congress from the small town of Jilotepec, about 90 kilometres north-west of Mexico City, thinks though that there is a way back for his party. He admits that this is a “step backwards and a moment of reflection” for the PRI, which governed Mexico in an unbroken period of 71 years until 2000.

Meeting him at the town council offices, we are both offered sugary black coffee before heading to his office. He is young, smart and affable. “We need to remodel our party or we are finished,” he says. “The PRI is not dead. This is actually a good opportunity for us.”

PRI MP Rodolfo Nogués Barrajas, in his office in Jilotepec, Mexico State, 4 July 2018 / © rosscullen.co.uk

It was remarkable that we were even talking about the PRI still being alive here. It should be in perfect health. Jilotepec is in Mexico State, the country’s most-populous entity, and this is the PRI heartland. The current president, Enrique Peña Nieto (PRI), was born in Atlacomulco, just up the road from Jilotepec. The current state governor, Alfredo del Mazo Maza (PRI), was born in the state capital, Toluca, and is the son and grandson of former PRI Mexico State governors. President Peña Nieto is del Mazo’s cousin. Given all this, Morena’s near-clean sweep of the lower house representatives in Mexico State (winning 42 out of 45 seats) is a stunning upset.

I asked Nogués Barrajas what went wrong for the PRI’s candidate for president, José Antonio Meade, who came third in the race for the top job. The MP lays the blame squarely at the incumbent’s door. Enrique Peña Nieto, the outgoing president, has had some of the lowest approval ratings for any Mexican leader in history, he has been caught up in corruption scandals, and – though he promised to get a handle on the violence – has presided over more than 109,000 murders during his six-year presidency.

Meade, a 49-year-old technocrat who served under PAN president Felipe Calderón as well as Peña Nieto, was an effective administrator but had limited experience when it came to winning elections, the MP told me.

The rejection of the PRI and the political class as a whole was a message that came through clearly from the electorate, I suggested. “We have to call time on distant politics; we need our councillors, MPs and senators to be more like citizens and less like politicians,” Nogués says. “We need to be more sensitive to the needs of the people and AMLO understood this. His MPs go to shops with the voters, they queue at the banks, they wait at the doctors’ surgery just like everybody else.”

PRI MP Rodolfo Nogués Barrajas in the main square in Jilotepec, Mexico State, 4 July 2018 / © rosscullen.co.uk

However, the young congressman lamented the tactics employed by AMLO’s party. “The people swallowed a lot of Morena propaganda. We had many excellent candidates – really good and experienced people – and now Jilotepec, for example, is going to have a mayor from Morena with absolutely no political know-how.”

But isn’t a change exactly what the people wanted? The PRI has had 77 years in power since 1929; surely that was long enough to show the people the party could govern in a trustworthy manner, I put to him.

“We have many doubts about an AMLO administration. When the expectations are so high, the disappointment hits you so much harder.”

Do you not think that despite worries over any possible disillusionment with AMLO the voters are simply tired of establishment parties and endless corruption scandals, the seemingly uncontrollable violence and the scarring inequalities, I asked him.

“Look, I congratulate Andrés Manuel. I like his personal style,” he says. “A change of parties is good for Mexican politics. I think Morena is here to stay as a political force. We now have a chance to demonstrate that the PRI can change – here in Jilotepec and throughout the nation.”

The Church of St Peter and St Paul in Jilotepec, Mexico State, 4 July 2018 / © rosscullen.co.uk

As he drains the rest of his coffee, he appears more conciliatory.

“AMLO has a great responsibility to carry out the promises has has made to the people but a bad president is bad for the country. If things don’t go well for him, Mexico as a country will hurt and feel the effects. Nobody wants that. I applaud him.”

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MEXICO ELECTION – “I will not fail you”

A progressive landslide victory for Andrés Manuel López Obrador

It was a spectacular night for the veteran left-winger, finally landing the top job after two previous presidential defeats. For the first time in 89 years, a party other than the centrist PRI or conservative PAN has control of the country, and it is a 64-year-old progressive at the helm.

López Obrador took a decisive 53% of the presidential vote, driving home his campaign polls advantage and leaving his two main rivals biting the dust. His party, Morena – which has only existed formally since 2014 – also played its part by winning five state governor races, the coup of the Mexico City mayoralty and heading for a major influx of MPs and senators in parliament.

A mother and daughter attend Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s election night victory speech in Mexico City, 1 July 2018 / © rosscullen.co.uk

As the realisation dawned on the Mexico City population on Sunday evening just what was happening – that the bubble of the established parties had truly been burst – thousands of AMLO supporters flooded the city’s central Zócalo square.

One of the main drivers behind AMLO’s overwhelming results has been the large numbers of protest votes, or votos de castigo, cast by millions of Mexicans fed up with corruption, violence and the gap between rich and poor and his supporters honked horns, flew flags and cheered in a combination of disbelief and hope as Latin America’s second-biggest economy toppled entrenched interests and establishment parties with a powerful, progressive left hook.

Crowds leave the Zócalo square in Mexico City after AMLO’s victory speech, 1 July 2018 / © rosscullen.co.uk

MEXICO ELECTION – Anger at lack of ballot papers

Anger among people who could not vote due to an insufficient number of ballot papers

Joel, 28, an engineer working in automation in the city of Houston in the United States, happened to be in Mexico renewing his visa and tried unsuccessfully to vote at the special polling station. He and his wife, Linda, 29, were incredulous that not enough ballot papers had been printed and that there had been no official guidance from the electoral authorities, meaning their six-hour wait in the queue to vote had been in vain.

Two unsuccessful voters show what number they were in the queue to vote / Mexico City, 1 July 2018 / ©rosscullen.co.uk

Blanca Góngora, a 55-year-old lawyer from the northern city of Monterrey, said she was “just angry – simply angry” that she had been turned away from voting. She had been hoping to cast her vote for the independent candidate Jaime Rodríguez, also know as El Bronco.

One couple from the state of Querétaro, 35-year-old Gilberto and 27-year-old Dani, were disconsolate at the thought of being turned away. For them, education was the most important issue in the election and it was “just horrible” that they were not going to be able to vote.

The special polling station where this blog reported from in the video above was located near the city’s main railway station, and lines streamed around the block, totalling many thousands of people, all from different states across Mexico, as you can see below, in what would ultimately be a futile attempt to vote.

As the news filtered through that the polling station was going to be closed because there were not enough ballot papers, the queue dispersed and the crowd divided – some left and simply gave up; others demanded answers as the mood soured.

Catchphrases and Top Trumps

The reliable power of a political phrase in recent elections

‘Make America Great Again’.

Emblazoned on caps, waved on placards, repeated again and again by Donald Trump, it was a message that was at the heart of the political earthquake that has shaken the United States. The president-elect skilfully used nicknames, pithy refrains and stadium chants to hammer home his mantras throughout the campaign. And when it comes to election day, these things tend to stick in people’s minds.

When Trump discussed his nearest Republican challenger in the primary process, he called him ‘Lyin’ Ted Cruz. It worked — the name caught on in the public consciousness and media space and Cruz’s campaign was dismissed and dismantled. Trump named the defeated Democratic presidential nominee ‘Crooked Hillary’ and on the campaign trail town halls rang to the deafening refrains of ‘Lock her up’ (on calls for Mrs Clinton to face trial over her use of a private email server when she was Secretary of State — the FBI’s most recent investigation found no case to answer on this).

Mr Trump had two other core chants with which he whipped up his supporters: ‘Build the wall’ (about his now-altered plan for a barrier on the border with Mexico) and ‘Drain the swamp’ (on his stated desire to sweep Washington clean of corruption).

Trump’s election victory compares to the Brexit vote in the UK in June. The similarities clearly exist in the punishment both votes dished out to the establishment candidates and the political elites.

The Trump and the Vote Leave campaigns promised an unclear future but one that would be undeniably different, fresh and changed from a picture they painted of a tired, entrenched system that was not working for the masses. And both campaigns enjoyed a willingness on the part of voters to see past questionable economic claims (in the Vote Leave case) and inflammatory and often racist comments (espoused by Mr Trump). The people overlooked issues like those because there was a greater dream at stake — the drive to rock the Westminster and Washington boats forever.

Furthermore, like the Trump campaign, in the UK, Vote Leave activists made successful use of the pithy remark. The phrases ‘Take back control’ and ‘We want our country back’ — whether these remain truthfully obtainable aims for the Brexiteers or not — carry a message of patriotic optimism with an undercurrent of achievable change. They embody the Vote Leave ambition of wresting the governance of the UK back from Brussels and they hark back to what they see as a golden era of how their country ‘used to be’.

This was a similar flavour to Trump’s ‘Make America great again’. The president-elect’s chant was denounced by opponents as a fallacy but for millions of his voters it was a positive message that could one day be realised. It painted a triumphant image of the superpower’s history but it was also a message where we saw the electorate willingly put on some rose-tinted spectacles to envisage that new ‘old’ America.

And the man that Donald Trump is replacing in the Oval Office knows the power of a good catchphrase.

‘Yes we can’ was the central message for Barack Obama and his team in 2008. An unquestionably positive phrase, it laid the basis for the hope that an African-American president could be elected, and that a new, more mindful politics could be introduced. The fact that the phrase was written and spoken regularly in several languages demonstrated its inclusiveness: any voter could take the phrase and apply it to their personal ambitions.

Slogans that are seen as optimistic and aspirational were also employed by the former British Chancellor, George Osborne, who regularly used the words ‘Long-term economic plan’ throughout his time in the Treasury.

The opposition Labour party would groan and jeer when he uttered it for the umpteenth time in a budget speech. But when it came to the general election in the UK last year, the idea of a ‘long-term economic plan’ struck a chord with the electorate and offered them the chance to be associated with what they saw as an aspirational message. Osborne also used the words ‘hard-working families’ and together the two refrains gave support to the desires and aims of millions of so-called ‘shy Tories’ who propelled Osborne’s party to a majority in May 2015.

Whether or not a phrase is entirely true or can actually be carried out is not of top importance. What matters is how readily the electorate take to the message. Hillary Clinton is unlikely to be ‘locked up’ but frequent hollering of this demand by Trump supporters re-affirmed the fear that millions of Americans had that there was something not wholly truthful about the former first lady’s conduct.

The negotiations to extract the UK from the European Union are going to be difficult and detailed and the terms of the exit are nowhere near set in stone. We do not know whether the country will ever ‘take back control’ but it was the power of what the message meant to voters during the referendum campaign that mattered.

What these phrases also do is convince the electorate that now is the one and only opportunity in history to effect the change behind the refrain.

The millions of Americans who voted Republican last week saw this election as their chance to ‘make America great again’. Those Britons opting to leave the EU saw the referendum as a unique opening to change the course of the country’s future. And those voting for Barack Obama in 2008 dreamt that this was the chosen hour; this was their time to effect the hopeful message of ‘Yes we can’.

Political slogans come and go in elections across the globe, but their iteration can become like a daily prayer for the believers.

What did the Tories say they’ll do in 2015? ‘Well they’ve got a long-term economic plan for hard-working families’. What was Obama’s main promise in 2008? ‘He says ‘Yes we can’ and we believe in him’. Can you name any of Donald Trump’s policies? ‘He’s the man who’s going to make America great again’.

Whether they are correct or not, once a certain rallying cry has been put out there, it is adopted by the faithful and repeated in discourse, online and in print. Catchphrases are useful methods to harden the resolve of your core voting constituency and they are an easy way to promote your policies, as voters take them up and repeat them for you out in the public sphere.

Revolution rocked

What to make of the elections in Venezuela?

Punishing the Socialists? Approving the new centrist coalition? A slap in the face for the chavista legacy? Not as much pro-opposition, but more anti-government?

At Canning House in London, three experts debated the results of a most fascinating election, where the ruling left-wingers lost their majority in the country’s one parliamentary house to a huge group of opposition parties.

Julia Buxton, a professor in comparative politics at the Central European University, is a seasoned Venezuela watcher. She was joined by Catherine Nettleton, British ambassador to Venezuela from 2010 – 2014, and the Latin America editor at the Financial Times, John Paul Rathbone.

Results

For the former ambassador, this was the “beginning of a new stage, not a fundamental change to society”. Ms Nettleton said the opposition would now feel under pressure to stay united. This was not the time for celebrations, said Ms Buxton. She warned of a “high potential for instability and disorder” and “a rollercoaster ahead of us”. Caution was the way forward, she said. For the FT’s Latin America editor, it was simple: Venezuela has to change. Mr Rathbone was unsure if now we would see “confrontation or transition”.

Economy

The journalist despaired of an “economy in dire condition…[with] too many vested interests”. He reeled off a list of serious problems that needed addressing, including the high risk of default, low foreign reserves and the plunging oil price.

That last point was important for Mr Rathbone. It all boiled down to three letters, he said: “O-I-L”. There were “distortions in the exchange rate…attempts ongoing to reschedule due debts…[and an] audit of state finances was needed”. He summed up his thoughts by sighing that the government’s measures “were not economic policy – this is a lottery”.

Bearing in mind how long it has taken to get the country into this parlous state, this blog asked the panel if there were any quick fixes that could be applied to satisfy an exasperated public.

Catherine Nettleton said several small steps were required across a wide range of policy areas, whereas Mr Rathbone suggested deinstitutionalisation and a sorting out of the troubled and distorted exchange rate.

Chavismo

Julia Buxton highlighted the dearth of a leftist alternative to the current Socialist party leadership, blaming the chavistas for falling out of touch with their grassroots. The election defeat was the price that president Nicolás Maduro had to pay for “sclerosis” and the politics professor went on to hint that the result of the vote “may prove to be fatal for Maduro”. That said, she declared that it would be “disastrous to try to roll back the Bolivarian Revolution”.

Opposition/MUD (Democratic Unity Roundtable)

The drivers of that revolution were “still very much in power” for the former British ambassador. Catherine Nettleton underlined the need for the opposition to “prove themselves”. Advice for the opposition’s next move came from Ms Buxton saying they must not “assume they have free rein” and that they “run the risk…[of being] revanchist and revengeful”. John Paul Rathbone did feel though that the “country desperately needs some clear thinking”.

Next move

Security was raised by a fellow audience member as one area where the two sides could hope to find some common ground. Julia Buxton said that she felt the “military was still an important actor”.

Catherine Nettleton looked to the wider region to provide support for Venezuela and Ms Buxton weighed up whether the result was “a protest vote against the government or indicative of a deeper political shift”. She argued that “a strategy of co-existence, co-habitation and dialogue” was necessary. Mr Rathbone looked at the market reaction and left wondering if “the economy is going to be in a tougher place next year”.

Coral politics

The Maldives have elected a new president – after three previous attempts failed

How many elections does it take to choose a president in the Maldives? Four, apparently, after a destabilising campaign of annulled ballots, cancelled votes and political grand-standing from all sides. On Saturday 16 the final election produced a result that has been accepted by the victors and the defeated and can hopefully bring some calm back to the tiny country after 18 months of political unrest. Abdulla Yameen is the new man in charge but his empowerment comes after a nervy period dating back to February 2012 when the Maldives’ first democratically-elected leader, Mohammed Nasheed, stepped down after street protests followed the sacking of a top judge.

The upheaval was not officially seen as a coup, but the resulting election that culminated in the vote last week was a catalogue of strange electoral management:

7 September: Nasheed, who was imprisoned during the one-party rule that ended in 2008, won this vote with 45%, but that result was scrapped by the Supreme Court over voter list irregularities.

9 November: A re-run of the first go. This time around, Mr Nasheed actually increased his share of the vote from 45% to 47% but it was not enough for an outright victory.

10 November: A run-off election called for this day was again cancelled by the Supreme Court, which is dominated by judges from the 1978-2008 one-party regime.

16 November: The run-off was set for this date and, although Mr Nasheed won the first-round, Abdulla Yameen secured 51.6% of the votes in the second-round ballot and thus landed the presidency.

Although Yameen is new to the hot-seat he comes from a dynasty that is infamously linked to the Maldivian presidency. His half-brother Maumoon Abdul Gayoom ruled the country for 30 years from 1978 in what has been criticised as a ‘dictatorial manner’ by rights groups. So is this a step backwards for the Asian archipelago? That is certainly the point of view that the defeated Nasheed takes, who fears sharia law is creeping into the Muslim nation and that the religious conservatism of the old guard could manifest itself again through the new leader. For his part, Yameen has pledged to get to work on trying to tackle the country’s high debt and lack of foreign currency reserves. Revised and reinvigorated economic policy would be welcome, but the new president would also like to see the death penalty implemented, a measure that is not such good news.

The mishandled lead-up to Saturday’s vote did not go unnoticed on the international stage. The Commonwealth threw the Maldives out of its disciplinary panel and the European Union hinted at a reaction if there was further unrest spilling out from another undecided or contested result. The other international side to the Maldives is its tourism sector, and nearly a million holidaymakers from across the world flew in last year.

Exactly how many honeymooning couples were aware or would have wanted to be aware of the political unrest is uncertain. What is undeniable is that their presence on the coral-fringed white-sand beaches and in the clear, green Indian Ocean waves is of the utmost importance to Malé. Tourism made up 38% of government revenue in 2012.

Abdulla got frosty with the EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton over her warnings, saying “We will decide our own affairs”. That may be true, but while Western powers might seem a nuisance with their cautioning and judgements, their nationals are more than happy to jet in for a spot of secluded snorkelling off one of the country’s beautiful atolls. Mr Nasheed has respected the result, saying “we have the opportunity to show citizens how an opposition party that is loyal to the state works”. Mr Abdulla must provide clear, focused respect on the path ahead, and lashing out at the foreign powers whose people come up with a vital portion of his government’s coffers is not the best way to begin.

MEXICO ELECTION XIII – An organised outcome?

Mexicans appear to have elected the PRI’s Enrique Peña Nieto to the presidency, alongside many state and local victories for the party. This blog is covering the results live from inside the country.

These men and women held impromptu debates in the Zócalo, the massive central Mexico City square, last night, as the polls were closing across the nation. They were not too happy about what they saw as the fixed outcome of the elections, even saying that, as a passer-by, I was a “witness and an accessory to this lousy fraud that is happening”.

And also the people have to organise themselves and go out, in all sectors of society, to fight for their rights, even if Andrés Manuel López Obrador wins the presidency. Be they students, peasants, workers, retired, mothers, women, everyone has to fight for their rights so that politics does not get a hold on those who will become the new MPs and senators, for they are people who have got to where they are in an obscure way. The people have to organise themselves on every level and fight, nothing more.

The people are asleep, they are still in bed, they have stopped waking up. Without our young protesters from the YoSoy132 movement, listen up we will be like slaves once again. We will be talking behind the oven, behind the mattress…but you know what friend? Listen to me please, I have a right to be heard, you have spoken, listen to me please, listen to me please, nothing more than a right to speak. You have to sort yourself out. Go on, go on. No he needs to sort himself out. Continue, continue! Only if he gives me permission…Continue, continue! Years ago, friends, the Mexican people stopped speaking to each other…this disunion that we have, in families, in neighbourhoods, in other places…it is time, friends, to awaken our consciences and we will all go together as our friends were saying, we will go together with the Mexican people to awaken and bring the country forward. Thanks a lot.

MEXICO ELECTION XII – Peña to the presidency

Mexicans have voted in a general election. This blog is live in the country covering the results

A wide selection of exit polls, including the official one calculated by the Federal Electoral Institute (IFE), show that Enrique Peña Nieto has won the presidency for the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) after 12 years in opposition. Voting predictions also paint Mexico overwhelmingly red, for the campaign colour of the PRI, in the local, state and federal elections that have also taken place.

In a televised address at 11.20pm, the head of the IFE, Leonardo Valdés Zurita, said that the more than 49m people who had cast a ballot made this the most ‘voted-for’ election in Mexican history. He gave the preliminary results, based on the IFE’s ‘conteo rápido’ system, as:

Josefina Vázquez Mota, from the National Action Party – between 25-27% of the vote

Enrique Peña Nieto, from the PRI-PVEM alliance – between 37-38% of the vote

Andrés Manuel López Obrador, of the PRD-PT-CM alliance – between 30-31% of the vote

Gabriel Quadri de la Torre, of the New Alliance party – about 2% of the vote

MEXICO ELECTION XI – Polling station and YoSoy132 camp

Voters outside a polling station in Tlatelolco neighbourhood, Mexico City

Official banners that hang outside each polling station

The #YoSoy132 movement’s main camp underneath the Monument to the Revolution

Huge YoSoy132 banner in square in front of camp

Message on banner in front of the YoSoy132 camp

‘We are all one’ message on YoSoy132 banner

‘Politicians – we are watching you’ – YoSoy132 food tent