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Mexico's Mid-term Elections: the Political and Policy

June 22, 2009

by Christopher Sabatini

Stolen elections and ballot-box stuffing became such the norm in Mexico under the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI) that observers used to say that even the dead rise and vote on election day. In the mid-term legislative elections on July 5, this time it may be the once-thought moribund PRI that rises from the dead. A newly resurgent PRI in Mexico’s bicameral congress will have consequences for the policy agenda (mostly positive) of President Felipe Calderón and his Partido Acción Nacional (PAN) and signal the decline of the leftist Partido Revolucionario Democrático (PRD)—under its current leadership, maybe not such a bad thing). 

At stake in these elections are 128 seats in the Mexican Senate and all 500 seats in the Chamber of Deputies. If polls are to be believed, these elections may dramatically shrink the seats that the PRD gained in the 2006 elections. At the time, many believed this would be the trend, as Mexico appeared cleaved between the Right (PAN) and the Left (PRD). In the 2006 elections, the PRD scored 37 of the one-third-open Senate seats, compared to 57 for the PAN and 32 for the PRI.  Most remarkable was that only six years earlier in the 2000 presidential/legislative elections the PRD only managed 17. In the lower-house elections in 2006, Mexico’s standard bearer for the Left, the PRD, did even better scoring 106 seats in the chamber, exceeding the 66 it won in 2000. 

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Now they’re looking at defeat. According to polls by Mitofsky, the tendencies among probable voters are that the PRI will receive 37 percent of the vote, the PAN 33 percent and the PRD a meager 15 percent. Granted, under Mexico’s complicated electoral system in which some seats are awarded in single-member, plurality-elected districts and others in larger districts by proportional distribution, these voter intentions—even if they hold—will not translate directly into seats. 

But still, what happened? Well, one is the PRD’s megalomaniacal leadership under Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the 2006 presidential candidate for the PRD. Losing in a squeaker of an election (less than 300,000 votes) in 2006 AMLO—as he’s popularly known—decided to call for a recount and protest the fairness of the elections, and then protest, protest, protest. His complaints raised questions about the use of state funds and offices for campaign purposes. But a recount and numerous statistical analyses never demonstrated the level of massive fraud that AMLO alleged. But that didn’t stop the former mayor of Mexico City. (Oddly, he never protested the PRD’s gains in the Congress—though won under the same election—as being fraudulent.) 

In a classic tactic of Mexico’s semi-institutional left, he engaged in marches and demonstrations and even held his own shadow election that chose a shadow government headed by none-other than himself. (Never mind the fact that his shadow election had none of the guarantees that he demanded of the official vote; it was a show of hands in a plaza.)  Unfortunately, though, this is often the style of Mexico’s unreformed left—a belief that they speak for the undefined people, prefering street tactics to institutions to demonstrate strength. It plays into Mexicans’ legitimate lack of confidence in institutions that were dominated for over 70 years by the PRI. But even in cases where institutions have been reformed, leftist hardliners prefer to play to popular fears when things don’t go their way.

The problem for the PRD is that the AMLO is marching the party into oblivion. In the party’s internal elections, AMLO insisted on pushing for the election of his candidate against the candidate of the moderate and more modern mayor of Mexico City, Marcelo Ebrard. What resulted was acrimony and deadlock. The breakdown and resulting stasis only raised more questions that the PRD was not ready to govern nationally. 

According to the same Mitofsky poll cited above, 15 percent of the voters who supported AMLO are now supporting the PRI. These numbers run against historical trends documented in excellent studies by Chappell Lawson at MIT.  He has demonstrated that in the past the independent or undecided vote was quite fluid, choosing between the PRD and PAN as the best way to register a protest vote to the PRI. Now some are swinging back to the PRI.

A stronger PRI in the Congress will likely mean greater cooperation with President Calderón on his reform agenda. That’s not to say that it will be easy. But with the PRD likely holding fewer seats, their scorched-earth policies of storming out of the Congress on key votes (such as reform of the Mexican state-run oil company PEMEX) will carry less importance—as will their hokey, misguided efforts to stage popular referenda on these issues. (An instance of plebiscitary, rule by the people if there ever was one.) For all its flaws (and boy are there some) the PRI is ultimately a pragmatic party and in many cases—especially in the Senate in which there are number of qualified PRI technocrats—willing to debate the merits of legislation. This has served the PAN well. Should the polls hold true on July 5th, it should continue to do so. 

One last note: there is movement underfoot in Mexico to rally Mexican citizens to deface their votes to protest their choices. Let me put this bluntly: this is a dangerous movement. OK, I don’t have to choose among the candidates on the list, so I don’t have to taste the displeasure of Mexican voters. But casting a null or defaced ballot is a singular act that does nothing to actually promote change.

If this simple act of scrawling an X across your ballot came with a guarantee that those same citizens would enlist in parties, become engaged in internal party politics to craft platforms and press for more democratic selection of leaders and candidates, fine. But it doesn’t. 

In reality it will remain a mere act of protest (projected to account for 7 percent of those who cast their ballot on July 5th) but without engaged, constructive activity it only creates space for the less democratically inclined. It’s a cheap form of protest—but one most importantly that runs a real risk of deepening distrust and disengagement. Not coincidentally it is being promoted by a former president of the old, unreformed PRI, Dulce María Sauri—the woman once referred to as Dulce María Dino-Sauri for her association and ties with the unreformed dinosaurs in the PRI. 

The other person who is promoting it is José Antonio Crespo, an academic who once argued with me (in 1997) that the reason that people accepted the bribes and patronage offered by the old-style (Dino-Sauri) PRI was because they were too stupid. I argued that it was a basic matter of poverty: they did it because they had no other source of income.  Crespo’s idea of rejecting the vote as a form of protest against the ruling class is equally naïve and misguided (and oddly finds itself on the side of the people he was arguing against when I saw him 12 years ago).  Only now his idea is dangerous—then it was just facile.

 

Tags: Mexico, PRD, AMLO, Legistlative Elections, PAN, PRI

To speak with an expert on this topic, please contact the communications office at: communications@as-coa.org or (212) 277-8384.
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