This an interesting essay about the recent elections (2009) in Mexico and the political future in the country. This text is published with authorization from the Foreign Policy Research Institute.

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by George Grayson

July 9, 2009

George  W.  Grayson  is  the  Class  of  1938  Professor  of Government at  the College  of William  & Mary, an associate scholar at  FPRI and  a senior  associate at  the Center for Strategic &  International Studies.  His next  book, Mexico: Narco-Violence and  a Failed State will be brought out later this year by Transaction Publications.

by George Grayson

The once-dominant  Institutional Revolutionary  Party  (PRI) staged  a   thundering   comeback   in   Mexico’s   July   5 congressional and  state elections  and  appears  poised  to dominate  the  next  Chamber  of  Deputies  in  league  with Mexico’s Greens  (PVEM). In  the heated race for the Chamber of  Deputies,   the  self-proclaimed  “revolutionary  party” garnered 36.7  percent of  the ballots cast compared with 28 percent  for   President  Felipe   Calderon’s   center-right National Action  Party (PAN),  12.2 percent for the leftist- nationalist Democratic  Revolutionary Party (PRD), 7 percent for the  PVEM, and  just over  10 percent  for a  farrago of small parties.  The  PRI  also  captured  five  of  the  six gubernatorial  races,   including  the  PAN  strongholds  of Queretaro and San Luis Potosi.

The fractured  Left did  well only in Mexico City, where the PRD and the Workers’ Party won 12 of 16 borough presidencies and 28  of 40  directly elected  seats  in  the  Legislative Assembly, the Federal District’s version of a city council.

Of Mexico’s  71.5 million  registered voters,  44.7  percent participated, although  an unprecedented  number of citizens voided their  ballots to  punish a  political system that is blatantly unresponsive to them.

This essay  analyzes (1)  factors in  PRI’s success, (2) the lack of accountability in Mexico’s political system, (3) the significance of  Sunday’s voting  on the  2012  presidential showdown, (4)  the impact  of the  elections on the nation’s drug war,  and (5)  the prospects  for Calderon  during  the remainder of his term.


In the spring of 2009, the PRI watched its double-digit lead shrink until  pre-election polls  showed that  it registered only 39  percent support  vis-a-vis the PAN (34 percent) and the  leftist-nationalist   PRD  (10-11  percent).  Moreover, momentum seemed to be with the PAN.

On Election  Day, the  PRI, which  governed the country from 1929  until   2000  in   Tammany  Hall   fashion,  outpolled Calderon’s party  by 8.7  percent and captured 237 deputies, according to  preliminary figures  provided by  the  Federal Electoral Institute  (IFE). If the PRI maintains the support of its corrupt alliance partner, the Greens, which picked up 21 seats,  the PRI and the Greens will control the 2009-2012 Chamber of  Deputies, which  convenes on  September  1.  PRI veterans should  be able  to find ways to crystallize a pact with the  Greens, which  is more  a family  business than  a political organization.  The PAN  (52  seats)  continues  to enjoy an advantage over the PRI (32), the PRD (26), the PVEM (6), and  small parties  (12) in the 128-member Senate, none of whose members were elected on July 5.

Several factors gave rise to this stunning victory. To begin with, PAN  President German  Martinez (who  resigned the day after the  July 5  defeat) mounted  a blistering,  no-holds- barred attack  on the  PRI for  its legacy of mismanagement, corruption, and  involvement with drug cartels. Such charges fell on  deaf ears  to many young voters who do not remember the economic  debacles of  Luis Echeverria  (1970-76),  Jose Lopez Portillo  (1976-82),  and  Carlos  Salinas  (1988-94). Martinez also  had to contend with “friendly fire” among PAN activists in  the gubernatorial campaign in San Luis Potosi, as well  as an  extremely  unpopular  outgoing  governor  in Queretaro who has accumulated more frequent flier miles than a UN  secretary-general.  In  the  final  analysis,  a  deep recession trumped all other considerations.

For its  part, the  revolutionary party  excoriated Martinez for mudslinging  and offered fuzzy proposals encapsulated in the innocuous  slogan, “Proven  Experience–A New Attitude.” Meanwhile,  PRI   president  Beatriz   Paredes  Rangel;  its eighteen governors;  and uber-Senator Manlio Fabio Beltrones worked tirelessly  to grease and repair the creaky machinery of the PRI, which–unlike competitors–brandishes a presence in the 31 states and the Federal District.

Given  the  blows  that  Mexico  has  suffered–a  recession inherited from  the U.S.,  falling remittances from Mexicans living abroad,  the swine  flu epidemic, the collapse of the tourist industry,  sagging oil  prices, and  at least  a 5.5 percent decrease  in GDP  in 2009–it  is amazing  that  the PAN’s losses were not greater.

In addition,  Mexico State  PRI Governor  Enrique Pena Nieto launched his  2012 presidential  campaign by barnstorming on behalf of  PRI nominees.  Not  only  did  he  make  personal appearances, but he showered resources and volunteers on his party’s candidates  for governor  in Campeche, Colima, Nuevo Leon, Queretaro,  and San  Luis  Potosi–all  of  whom  won. Differences between the Mexico State chief executive and his PRI counterpart  in Sonora  meant that  the “Golden Boy” (as the  movie-star  handsome  Pena  Nieto  is  known)  did  not participate in  the gubernatorial  donnybrook in that border state. The  PAN eked out a victory, probably because of the deaths of  48 children  in the  ABC day-care  center a month before the voting.

Meanwhile, after  former Mexico  City  Mayor  Andres  Manuel Lopez Obrador  attracted nearly one-third of the vote in the controversial 2006  presidential showdown, the Mexico’s Left has once  again demonstrated  skill in forming firing squads in a  circle. The  messianic Lopez  Obrador has not resigned from the  PRD; however,  much to the chagrin of PRD leaders, he has  accepted the  presidential nomination  of two small, opportunistic leftist  groups: the  Workers’ Party  and  the Convergencia Party.  In various areas, including the Federal District’s largest  borough  of  Iztapalapa,  Lopez  Obrador helped a  Workers’  Party  standard-bearer  defeat  his  PRD opponent. In  view of  this disarray,  many PRD voters opted for the PRI, the party from which many of them had migrated.


Analysts erred  in predicting a low turnout inasmuch as 44.6 percent of  the 71.5  million  eligible  voters  showed  up. Denise  Dresser,   Sergio  Aguayo,   and  a  host  of  other intellectuals  along  with  civic  organizations  skillfully employed the  Internet and  the media  to urge  citizens  to spoil their  ballots  to  protest  an  unrepresentative  and unaccountable  political   system.  Their  movement  yielded dividends nationwide  (5.6  percent)  and  in  a  number  of
jurisdictions: Mexico  City (10.8  percent), Chihuahua  (7.5 percent),  San   Luis  Potosi  (7.4  percent),  Puebla  (7.3 percent),  and  Michoacan  (6.7  percent).  Why  would  more several million people take the time to go to the polls only to desecrate their ballots?

The most  compelling explanation  springs from the inability of  citizens  to  influence  elected  officials.  The  chasm between the political elite and grassroots’ constituents has bred a sense of political impotency.

For example,  Mexico’s Constitution  bans the  reelection of chief executives, who reach office via a first-past-the post procedure. Calderon entered the presidency with 33.9 percent of the  ballots cast,  just  0.6  percent  more  than Lopez Obrador. If there had been a run-off to achieve a 50 percent mandate, it might have forced parties to negotiate, bargain, and compromise in pursuit of a successful coalition. Such an alliance could have contributed to collaboration in Congress where intolerance  between and  among  parties  thrives  and continually impels  deadlock  and  drift– except  for  bills important to special interests.

Other measures  that  amplify  the  establishment/grassroots chasm are a prohibition on independent candidacies; a ban on civic groups  airing media  ads during campaigns; the heavy- handed hegemony  of party  chiefs in  selecting nominees and ranking them  on proportional  representation lists  used to select one-fourth  the Senate  and two-fifths of the Chamber of  Deputies;  disallowing  deputies,  senators,  governors, state legislators, and mayors from serving consecutive terms in  their   offices;  and   failing  to  forge  a  coherent, responsible Left.

These considerations,  combined with  the fact  that so many lawmakers  lack  defined  constituencies,  militate  against
advancing the  interest of  average citizens. All the while, elected officials line their pockets with generous salaries, hefty fringe benefits, Christmas bonuses, travel funds, free medical care,  office expense  accounts, pensions,  “leaving office” stipends, and many other ways to live the good life. In response to legislation, the Federal Electoral Institute, which registers  voters, supervises  elections, and  reports preliminary  vote  tallies,  lavishes  monies  on  political parties (3.6 billion pesos in 2009).

No  wonder   that  the   late,  inordinately   powerful  PRI “dinosaur” Carlos  Hank Gonzalez coined the lapidary phrase:
“Show me a politician who is poor and I will show you a poor politician.”

The “voto  nulo” sponsors  plan to organize its participants in the weeks ahead via


Comics claimed  that actress  Angelica Rivera,  Pena Nieto’s significant other,  spent July  6 at  Los Pinos presidential residence measuring  for curtains.  A lot  can happen in the three years before Mexicans choose their next president. Yet surveys show  the Mexico  State Governor  as the frontrunner among a  dozen or  more aspirants. As mentioned, he is good-looking, has  access to  all the  money he  needs,  and  has accumulated a suitcase full of IOUs from politicians whom he has helped.

In addition,  Pena Nieto  comes from  the country’s  largest jurisdiction (10  million voters), boasts the near-unanimous support  of   the  state’s  potent  and  affluent  political nomenklatura, gets  along well  with the business community, enjoys abundant  coverage on  Televisa, the nation’s largest television network;  and drubbed the PAN and PRD in his home state in the recent contest.

At the same time, he has spent billions of dollars on highly visible public-works  projects that  have won  approval from mayors across the political spectrum.

His challenge  will be to avoid the internecine warfare that found  the   PRI’s  2006   presidential  candidate,  Roberto Madrazo, losing  every  state  and  finishing  third  behind Calderon and Lopez Obrador.

The  “Big  Three”  in  the  PRI  are  Pena  Nieto,  age  43; Beltrones, 54  (who functions as a virtual vice president of the country);  and party chief Paredes, 53 (who may head the PRI faction  in the next Chamber of Deputies). These strong, ambitious, and  savvy leaders  buried their  differences  to help impel  Sunday’s triumph.  If  they  can  work  together during the next three years, the PRI will remain the odds-on favorite to recapture the presidency.

The PAN  suffers from  a “short  bench.” Other  figures  may arise,  but   in   mid-2009   the   potential   presidential competitors were Interior Secretary Fernando Gomez Mont, 46, and former  Education Secretary  Josefina Vazquez  Mota, 48, who could emerge as the leader of her party’s faction in the Chamber of Deputies. The name of German Martinez, 32, graced the list  of “possibles”  until the  recent  electoral  loss forced his resignation as his party’s head. Only if there is a strong  economic rebound  is the  PAN likely to retain its lease on Los Pinos.

The  fractured   Left  may  present  two  candidates.  Lopez Obrador,  55,  continues  to  speak  throughout  the  nation lambasting the  PRI and  the PAN,  which he ridicules as the pro-capitalist, anti-poor “PRIAN.” He is counting on a total collapse of  the economy  that will  find los  jodidos  (the acutely disadvantaged)  carrying him  on their  shoulders to the presidency.

Mexico City  Mayor Marcelo  Ebrard, 49, also has his eye set on the  presidency. While  personally attractive and an able speaker, he labors under several burdens: bad blood with the dominant, moderate “Chucho” faction of his PRD; a reputation for reneging  on political  promises; unwillingness to break openly  with   the  mercurial   AMLO;   rampant   corruption throughout the city’s bureaucracy; a prison system afflicted by extreme overcrowding and criminality; and the possibility of being  the candidate of the PRD, which garnered only 12.2 percent of the vote earlier in the month.


How will  all of  this play  out  on  the  drug  crisis  now plaguing both  Mexico and  the U.S.?  It should  be recalled that the   drug  cartels   got  their   start   under   PRI administrations as  one more corrupt sector among many. That included the PEMEX oil monopoly and the electricity duopoly. It  extended  to  the  mass  media,  public  education, the official union  movement, the  peasantry, the judiciary, the bureaucracy, and major tranches of the private sector. Worst of all,  law-enforcement agencies  were  also  part  of  the corruption.

Despite this  history, Martinez’  attempt to  tie the PRI to organized crime  did not  prove sufficiently  persuasive  to overcome tough  economic conditions  and the  PRI’s superior organizational elan.  Moreover,  prominent  PAN politicians have cut  their own  deals with  the narco-traffickers.  For example, a  few  days  before  the  election,  a  publicized recording revealed  that Mauricio Fernandez Garza, the PAN’s (successful) mayoral  candidate in  San Pedro  Garza  Garza, Monterrey’s immensely  wealthy municipality,  had vetted his anti-crime program with the sinister Beltran Leyva mob.

Yet the PRI has an auditorium-sized closet of skeletons. The notorious paramilitary  cartel Los  Zetas operates a virtual parallel government  in the PRI-dominated northeast state of Tamaulipas,  whose  last  few  governors  left  office  with tarnished reputations. Mario Anguiano Moreno, the victorious PRI candidate  for governorship of Colima–home of the drug- infested port  of Manzanillo–has  multiple  connections  to narco-criminals. His  brother languishes  in prison  in  the United States; his first cousin is serving time in Mexico.

The   PRI’s    Green   comrades   have   successfully   used environmental issues  to attract  young, suburban voters. In fact, the  PVEM often aligns with the highest bidder. One of its senators,  Arturo Escobar  y Vega,  was arrested several
weeks before  the election  with a  suitcase containing  1.1 million pesos.  Authorities have not released the provenance of these funds.

In  general,  the  narco-syndicates  concentrated  on  local elections, particularly  along trafficking  corridors  where suborning or  intimidating mayors and their police forces is crucial to  their commerce. Organized crime emerged from the eletion stronger  than ever.  In rural  areas such states as Colima, Durango, Guerrero Michoacan, Sinaloa, Zacatecas, the drug syndicates  practice a  form of “dual sovereignty” with elected governments–that  is,  the  cartels collect  taxes (extortion), create jobs (growing and processing drugs), and perform civic acts (contributing to churches and schools).


Calderon, 46,  does not  want to  follow in the footsteps of his predecessor,  fellow PAN  activist Vicente  Fox  Quesada (2000-06), who  became a lame duck after voters thrashed the PAN in  the 2003  mid-term balloting. The PRI-PVEM bloc will write the tight-as-a-tick 2010 budget, which sets priorities for the nation.

Still, there  are several  ways in which Calderon can remain relevant, and  even effective.  First, the  president should insist on  a strong  person  like  former  Jalisco  governor Francisco Ramirez  Acuna or  ex-senator and  current Tourism Secretary Rodolfo Elizondo to succeed German Martinez.

Second, Calderon  will  continue  to  battle  drug  cartels, which–hundreds of  arrests aside–remain  brutally powerful and incredibly  wealthy. The profound corruption of Mexico’s police at  all levels  will force him to continue to rely on the armed forces. Still, the Army has only 80,000 to 100,000 combat troops  and, at  any given  time, upwards  of 5 to 10 percent are on leave, sick, in training, or AWOL. Even as he continues to apply muscle, the president appears prepared to concentrate more  on electronic  eavesdropping, information- sharing with U.S. agencies, spies on the ground, scrutiny of money  flows,   attention  to  mayors  and  other  political “enablers” of the mafiosi, and a wide array of technological innovations.

Third,  he   should  consider  appointing  Arturo  Sarukhan, Mexico’s adroit  envoy to  the United  States,  as  the  new foreign secretary.  Incumbent Patricia Espinosa’s knee-jerk, follow-the-leader approach to the complicated power shift in Honduras argues  for change  in  an  area  where  the  chief executive has  substantial leeway.  He  might  also  replace other lackluster  cabinet secretaries  (of Economy,  Energy, Agriculture, and Agrarian Reform).

Fourth, Calderon  should seek  PRI’s backing  (and even  the PRD’s support)  in legally  ousting  common  foes  who  have impeded the  country’s development–namely,  SNTE  teachers’ union boss  Elba  Esther  Gordillo,  whom  the  late  Mexico scholar M.  Delal Baer  called “Jimmy Hoffa in a skirt”; and Martin Esparza,  potentate  of  the  obscenely  corrupt  and featherbedded  Mexican   Electricians  Union   (SME).  SME’s employer, the state-operated Luz y Fuerza del Centro, should also be eliminated, with another public company, the Federal Electricity Commission,  taking over  service in the Federal District area.

Finally, Calderon  should strive  to convince the unreformed PRI  that–given   its  promising   chance  of  winning  the presidency in 2012–it should cooperate on a root-and-branch tax overhaul.  Otherwise, Pena Nieto, Beltrones, Paredes, or another stalwart,  if  successful,  will  inherit  a  failed economy. Should  he accomplish  major changes  in the fiscal system and/or  break the  SNTE, which  has colonized  public education, he  will go down in history as a successful chief executive.

The U.S.  needs to  be watching all this closely, because if economic conditions  in Mexico  continue to deteriorate, the U.S. will  suffer in terms of migration pressures, decreased trade, and mounting narco-violence.

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