MEXICO ELECTION II – One last hurdle for PRI

On 1 July Mexico will hold a general election. This blog will cover the vote live from inside the country. This is the second build-up post; click here for the first article

The Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) governs 20 of Mexico’s 32 states. It has 48% of the seats in the lower house of Congress and has the second-biggest number of senators. In the latest presidential poll, published today for national daily Reforma, its hot-seat candidate, Enrique Peña Nieto, had a comfortable 12-point lead over his nearest rival. Ever since the 1997 general election when the PRI lost its lower-house majority for the first time and the 2000 presidential vote, when they relinquished the top job as well, the political behemoth has been chipping away at the opposition in an incessant aim to reclaim its position at the head of Mexican politics. And now it is on the verge of sitting astride the national eagle once again.

But it is not just the survey out today that seems to show the the PRI juggernaut is heading unstoppably back to the top of the country. Enrique Peña Nieto was winning the polls even before he declared his candidacy and has held double-digit leads for many months. But despite the seeming inevitability about the PRI’s return to the steering-wheel, it has not been a problem-free drive. There have been widespread student protests against what is perceived to be Peña Nieto’s backing for big business and media interests and a lack of empathy with the ordinary Mexican on the street.

In fact, tonight the #YoSoy132 movement is holding an unofficial third presidential debate. The campaign has its roots in 131 students at the Ibero-American University in Mexico City who heckled Peña Nieto at a conference. The politician accused them of being “manipulated youth from outside the university” but the demonstrators do actually all study at the institution and showed off their matriculation documents in a video response. The ‘132’ is designed to reflect all other Mexicans who are dissatisfied with the former Mexico State governor. The anti-PRI fervour has been inflamed again as Enrique Peña Nieto has declined to take part in tonight’s debate, leaving the three other presidential candidates, PAN’s Josefina Vázquez Mota, the PRD’s Andrés López Manuel Obrador and PANAL’s Gabriel Quadri de la Torre, to battle it out without the favourite in the race.

This is not the first controversial coming together the candidates have had on the campaign trail and the first debate between the four of them was overshadowed when the production team selected a well-endowed model to help the politicians choose who got to speak first. But the two debates they have had were lacklustre. In the most recent one, on 10 June in Guadalajara, the student protests – which could have been a real problem for Peña Nieto – were not raised by the opposing candidates when they could have been tapped into to heap more pressure on the PRI man. Instead, he floated through without entering into any damaging mud-slinging.

Mexico is on the international stage at the moment as it hosts the annual G20 summit during its year as the head nation of the bloc. But far away from the global chit-chat in the beautiful resort of Los Cabos, the stage has been set for a very different kind of summit: an unplanned, student-led debate with the contenders for the top job. And Enrique Peña Nieto has decided not to show, giving himself an unnecessary hurdle on his coast towards power, when he could have seized the opportunity and really given his supporters a political belief to cherish, not just a telegenic smile to accept passively.

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MEXICO ELECTION I – Back to the future

On 1 July Mexico will hold a general election. This blog will cover the vote live from inside the country

If the polling situation remains the same then the old political beast, the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), will get their man back into the hot-seat on 1 July. There is hardly any electoral evidence or think-tank forecasting to suggest that the presidential landscape will undergo an upheaval (and it would have to be a breath-taking shift) that will shove the favourite, the PRI’s Enrique Peña Nieto, off course. As the polls stand, and as they have stood for a long time, the National Action Party (PAN) incumbent Felipe Calderón has low approval ratings (and cannot stand for a second term under the constitution anyway) and Enrique Peña Nieto is racing ahead in first place.

There are three other candidates for the top job but they are floundering away well below Mr Peña Nieto. He is closing in on securing 50% of the votes, putting him securely into the head of state’s residence, Los Pinos, later this year. Pretty much tied for second place are the PAN’s Josefina Vázquez Mota and the Party of the Democratic Revolution’s Andrés Manuel López Obrador (who interchange second and third place and both are on about 25%). López Obrador was the runner-up last time round, in 2006, to Calderón, (by an incredibly small margin, and one which he disputed for months afterwards, camping out in the capital and rallying his supporters). Back then it was the old opposition, the PRD and the PAN, slugging it out for the presidency, having finally ditched the PRI from the country’s leadership in 2000 after 70 years of running Mexico as a one-party state through a mix of corruption, fiddling results and a sprinkling of rhetoric.

But it seems that the nation is looking backwards for its next step forwards. The PRI may have been missing from the top job for the last twelve years but they have always been there or thereabouts in Congress. They have a healthy majority in the Cámara de Diputados lower house heading into the 1 July vote. After two successive presidencies of the conservative PAN, it seems the electorate is ready for a change. And they do not want the PRD man to be the new jefe de estado.  They want the old guys back.

Has the PRI changed? Does it even matter? Josefina Vázquez Mota has not been able to secure the votes of women happy at the chance to give their country una presidenta. That would certainly be a sign of progress, shaking the old scourge of machismo and following many neighbours with female leaders. In fact, it is Peña Nieto who has the lead in women voters, many of whom openly admit being seduced by his dashing good looks rather than his policies.

Finally, there is the PANAL candidate, Gabriel Quadri de la Torre. He knows what his problem is: particracy. He has openly acknowledged his is fighting an uphill contest against the three big parties that tend to gobble up all the votes. He presents himself as a fresh choice for an embattled country but he is wobbling around at the bottom of the polls. Maybe he is too much of an unknown, risky punt for the voters. But then even the liberal PRD are finding it tough electioneering, not to mention former cabinet minister Josefina Vázquez Mota, tainted by links to criticised President Calderón. Maybe the only option then is to go back to what you know: a handsome young man from an old, somewhat less clean-shaven party.

Enrique on the way

In a year’s time Mexico will have a new president and it seems the race to Los Pinos is one man’s to lose

The state governor elections in the year before the Mexican presidential election are often taken as a barometer of public opinion in the lead-up to the crunch vote. The barometer is showing pressure building in two areas and for two very different reasons.

Firstly, the president, Felipe Calderón, is seen more and more as a lame duck leader. Heads of state in Mexico only get one, six-year turn at the top and on 1 July, 2012 his time will be up. His defiant ‘war on drugs’ has claimed more than 35,000 lives since it was launched when he came into office in 2006, his reforms have stalled (notably his education changes) and he has lost his majority in the lower house. Constitutionally, he himself has to leave office. But notably, after 12 years in the presidential residence of Los Pinos (first with 2000-2006 president Vicente Fox and then with Calderón), the National Action Party (PAN) is also heading for the salida as Mexico’s dominant political force.

And returning to the fray will be the country’s political behemoth: the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). Their likely presidential candidate is the second man under pressure: Enrique Peña Nieto. He was the outgoing governor of Mexico State who was replaced by Eruviel Avila in a landslide win in the elections on 3 July. Free from state politics, he now has a year in which to ram home his growing advantages over his rivals.

Peña Nieto leaves behind a state with many healthy public works projects and many unhealthy crime and poverty problems. But two years ago, in the middle of his term as state governor, nearly everyone I spoke to had already signalled him out as the main man to take on the PAN at the next presidential elections. They were in awe of his photogenic charm and smooth political operating. He has overcome personal tragedy, losing his first wife to a heart attack associated with epilepsy. He has remarried a soap star. He is younger than Calderón and has the backing of the most populous state in the country (Mexico State; population 15 million) and will now set out to win over the rest of the country.

Mexico is ready to be won over; it is ready for a change. The drugs war is making very slow and very bloody progress. The government is tired. In 2000 Calderón’s PAN managed to boot out Peña Nieto’s PRI from office after more than 70 years in power. After eleven years in opposition the PRI machinery is oiled and ready for its presidential comeback. The PAN is seemingly already beaten, going by the Mexico State election results. The PRI now has to see off its rival opposition challengers, the Party of the Democratic Revolution, whose candidate for the presidency may well be the combative and equally smooth Mayor of Mexico City Marcelo Ebrard. If Peña Nieto can do that, Los Pinos is his for the taking.

Jihad in Juarez?

Fears are growing in Washington over organised and violent crime in Mexico but defiant rhetoric must be backed up by defiant actions.

US Secretary of Homeland Security, Janet Napolitano, issued a bold message to the gangsters south of the border recently:

“Don’t even think about bringing your violence and tactics across this border. You will be met by an overwhelming response. And we’re going to continue to work with our partners in Mexico to dismantle and defeat you.”

Napolitano also elaborated on fears that Al-Qaeda could get in contact with some of the gangs in efforts to exert more destabilising influence over the region.

However, Mexican Interior Minister Francisco Blake rejected the idea that, in particular, Los Zetas could start to get cosy with the Islamist terror group. He emphasised the differences between the situations, with Al-Qaeda driven by religious interpretation and the Mexican gangs by drug-trafficking and organised crime.

Jihad or not, gang members in Mexico won’t be too bothered by this latest challenge from Washington. Words have come and gone before. There have been some major bilateral policies, such as the Merida Initiative.

However, despite the help it offers Mexico, the lack of support that scheme gives for Central American nations tarnished by inflitrating Mexican gangsters is a problem. The US obviously takes its border security very seriously and major strengthening efforts have been concentrated in frontier states, although this is not an area free from controversy.

This is an important year for Mexican politicians, with the presidential election coming up in 2012. Gangs have been extending links into Central America and the US is still nervous. Napolitano’s call could be seen as a spur in the side of the politicians, reminding them that whoever moves into Los Pinos, the presidential residence, next summer must remain focussed on the war.

The US can help and it works closely with Mexican intelligence services, but this is a nudge to remind everyone where this all started. Mexicans prefer to highlight the incessant consumer demand in the US. Finger-pointing doesn’t help and dialogue often simply puts off substantial movements; meaningful actions must continue to be the main focus of both Mexico City and Washington.