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Seven Lessons from Mexico’s Electoral Process

July 2, 2012

by Arjan Shahani

With an estimate of around 37 percent of the votes, Enrique Peña Nieto’s victory in Mexico’s presidential race will be analyzed from multiple angles, including what this will mean with regard to the war on drugs, the economic model in place, relations with the U.S. and the rest of the world, and many other topics.

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For the most part, Peña Nieto’s tenure will not imply radical changes in Mexico, for better or worse but the return of the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (Institutional Revolutionary Party—PRI) to power does say a lot about the way Mexico’s society thinks and operates. This electoral process has opened up an interesting window into the Mexican collective psyche. These are some of the lessons from the 2012 election.

Debates are not yet a vehicle for voter decision in Mexico.  There were three presidential debates (two official ones and one organized by #YoSoy132 to which Peña Nieto did not attend) during the presidential race. Peña Nieto’s participation in these dialogues was considered lukewarm at best. His rhetoric was empty but his poor performance was not enough to shift voter preference away from him and toward a second viable option.

We still have a long way to go to build political awareness and education. Peña Nieto’s success cannot be attributed to a strong and enriched political platform or to his superiority as a candidate over his competitors. One could not say that he is smarter, better prepared or better equipped to be president than his competitors. Peña Nieto’s success shows that Mexican voters can easily be manipulated (or convinced) through robust campaigning, a large TV presence and looks. As different media showed when they interviewed people at political rallies (for the three major candidates), a large quantity of voters had no idea of where candidates stood on relevant issues. “I trust him,” “He’s cute” and “I’ll vote for him because the other one is crazy” were some of the compelling arguments that gave Peña Nieto a victory on July 1. Sadly, we still have a long way to go to create an informed voter base. The candidate you saw more billboards and TV ads from, is the one that came out on top in voter preference.

Short-term memory plays a more important role than long-term memory. Peña Nieto won for many reasons but one of them was definitely that voters wanted to punish the Partido Acción Nacional (National Action Party—PAN) for its performance in the past 12 years and Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) for his lack of respect for the rule of law during his 2006 post-election shenanigans. Mexico was willing to forgive and forget and make peace with the PRI because as many voters put it “we were better off with PRI,” for the most part referring to the increasing levels of organized crime violence resulting from the active war on drugs set forth by President Calderón.

There is e-Mexico and then there’s Mexico. There is a clear divide among Mexicans with access to social networks and those without. On Twitter, users were appalled with the results. Even when all polls signaled Peña Nieto’s victory, Internet users were not willing to believe them. Conversations on Twitter and Facebook had been significantly dominated by AMLO and Josefina Vázquez Mota (PAN) followers.  A popular tweet on the night of the election was “I have no idea how they did it. Does anybody here know anyone who voted PRI?” For the most part, the answer was no. Peña Nieto was elected for the most part, by people who do not actively participate online. For upcoming elections, candidates should know that the segment of Internet users in Mexico will only become larger and they will need to actively engage them during the campaign.

The return of PRI does not mean the return of absolutism. This is not optimism; it’s just a very likely reality. Pessimists are evaluating the return of the PRI as a step back in our democracy because they remember the 70 years of absolutism; instead, it is yet another building block in our system which will put to the test whether or not we are a mature enough society to deal with altering power. The PRI will rule a very different Mexico from in the past. Civil society will be more vigilant and we will hold Peña Nieto accountable for his performance as president. Technology will play a significant role in maintaining a non-official discourse, with freedom of speech and free flow of information empowering a growing sector of society. Even with a party majority in Congress, Peña Nieto will have to answer to Mexicans who will either reward or punish his party in future elections.

PRI holding both the executive and a majority in Congress will be an acid test on government efficiency. Both Vicente Fox and Felipe Calderón of the PAN had a very good excuse when their effectiveness was questioned. They could just say (and many times they would have been right) that Congress was blocking their ability to operate and put forth structural reforms.  Peña Nieto will have no such excuse with a PRI majority Congress to not pass and implement the labor, energy, security and political reforms that society has demanded and that have been paralyzed by a non-cooperative legislature during the Calderón government. This will also lead us to question if Mexico’s democracy could actually work and be effective if a real system of checks and balances is in place.

Most people did not vote for Peña Nieto. There were more votes against Peña Nieto than in favor of him. Just like Calderón, Peña Nieto will preside over a country that for the most part, did not want him to be president and did not choose him. This is why last night he went on national TV to say that we should “set aside our differences and privilege our common goals […] we may have different preferences but we have something that binds us together: our love for Mexico […] we share the same challenges and must work together to overcome them.” While his inclusive rhetoric is exactly what Mexico needed to hear last night as it attempts to move forward from electoral campaigning divides, the fact of the matter is that winning by a relative majority surfaces yet again the need to implement a run-off electoral process, just like Calderón proposed to Congress (and was blocked). Given the results of last night’s election, would Peña Nieto have won in a second round of elections running only against López Obrador?

Tags: Mexico, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, Enrique Peña Nieto, Josefina Vázquez Mota

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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