With 24 days remaining until election day, Mexico’s National Action Party (PAN) has been unable to manage its public relations faux pas with former President Vicente Fox (2000-2006). Over the weekend, Fox said the nation will need to unite behind the winner on July 1—referring to Enrique Peña Nieto of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) who maintains an 18-point lead over his three rivals.
Days later, at a speech before the Monterey Chapter of the Harvard Club, Fox repeated his claim that Peña Nieto is above in the polls and likely to become Mexico’s next president. While Fox maintains his allegiance and affection to the PAN, he said his comments are a reflection of his party’s inability to do its homework in the past six years.
Fox’s comments angered both his party’s leadership and leftist presidential contender Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO). The former said Fox´s comments are insulting and ungrateful to the party that helped him become president. The latter dismissed Fox as “riff-raff” and attributed his comments to a fear that AMLO is only four polling points from the PRI frontrunner. (The figure has been questioned by pollsters, experts and other seasoned campaign consultants since the statement was made earlier this week.)
This is not the first time the former president has spoken positively of the PRI, the PAN’s lifelong nemesis. In April, Fox told reporters the PAN’s nominee, Josefina Vazquez Mota, needs a “small miracle” to win the presidency. Outcry from panistas ended when Vázquez Mota and Fox met to discuss campaign strategy and later posed for pictures with the media.
Vazquez Mota and Fox have a long history: she served as his social development minister for all six years of the Fox administration, a job she executed with high integrity and total devotion. Vázquez Mota worked 18-hour days to reverse the ministry’s traditional politico-electoral operation to support pockets needed to win local, state and national elections. She carried out a census to truly determine how many poor lived in Mexico and brought monitoring and evaluation metrics to the ministry. The relationship, however, was not always friendly due in large part to the First Lady Marta Sahagún and her interference with Vázquez Mota’s decision-making; the first lady wanted the ministry to promote her political agenda as a preamble to her running for president in 2006.
PAN President Gustavo Madero says the party will have to consider sanctioning Fox. But such a move could further wound the party. Former PAN Party President Manuel Espino (2005-2007) was both sanctioned and expelled from the party in 2010 after criticizing President Felipe Calderón both publicly and through two published books. Three weeks ago, Espino, a lifelong panista from Durango, held a large gathering alongside Peña Nieto to announce his support for the PRI in next month’s elections. In Mexico, expelling one´s once loyal party leaders comes at a high cost.
Should the PRI win the presidency in July, the PAN will have a leadership vacuum among its most senior ranks. If defeated, Vázquez Mota seems unlikely lead the party; Calderón’s appointees will have no moral or political fuel left to reconstruct the party; and the party’s current leadership will lack the clout necessary to carry out any significant changes.
Thus, it may be up to individuals like President Fox and a handful of state governors to set new standards and lead the PAN. While Fox’s comments are unfortunate, the party may have to think long-term before making any rash decisions about one of its most respected leaders.
Juan Manuel Henao is a guest blogger to AQ Online. He is a consultant based in Mexico City and former Mexico Country Director for the International Republican Institute (IRI), a Washington DC-based not-for-profit democracy promotion organization.