With No Clear Winner, Mexico’s Midterm Elections Reveal Nation’s Strife
After the polls closed in Mexico on June 7, Enrique Peña Nieto stepped up to claim a victory he didn’t win.
In his polished televised address, the president declared triumphantly “In Mexico, democracy advances”. He announced that the Mexican people had expressed its will through institutions and channeled its differences through the democratic system.
There was nothing conciliatory about the president’s speech. He called the sizable voter turnout a “mandate to reject violence and intolerance and work together toward prosperity and peace”, obliquely referring to pre-electoral conflicts involving protesting teachers, victims’ organizations and other opposition. He issued a warning to the thousands who are protesting the neoliberal educational and privatization reforms by concluding: “The reforms are going forward.”
Punishment of the Major Parties
But the results of the elections were far from a vote of confidence for his government and its reforms, or even for the electoral system itself. With more than 2,000 posts, including the whole lower house and nine governorships, up for grabs, Mexicans turned out to vote at a rate of around 48%–high for a midterm—and despite calls for a boycott.
The election-day participation, however, has not dissipated discontent. Mexico under the incoming politicians will face as much –or more– protest and mistrust in the system as it did with the old ones.
Election day participation has not dissipated discontent. Mexico under the incoming politicians will face as much—or more—protest and mistrust in the system as it did under the old ones.
Polls showed that some 91% of those surveyed do not trust the political parties and only 27% are satisfied with the level of democracy in Mexico. In this context, a mix of reasons brought people out to vote when they had little faith in the system or the results. Opting for the lesser of evils, vote buying, coercion of public employees with threats of firing and, in some cases, real enthusiasm for candidates, all combined to create a strong turnout. To interpret that as a unified statement in support of institutions that most people believe are corrupt and highly flawed is a purposeful error designed to, once again, paper over deep and growing sources of dissent.
All the major parties—the governing Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), the rightwing National Action Party (PAN) and the left-of-center Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) suffered setbacks. The PRI took an estimated 30% of the Chamber of Deputies. It maintained its majority among parties and, along with its unconditional allies the Green Party and New Alliance, will wield a ruling majority in Congress. This control closes off opposition through legislative channels, potentially raising the temperature in the pressure pot Mexico has become in recent months.
Although Peña Nieto’s party held on to its majority in Congress, it lost about a dozen seats. The president took the result as an endorsement of his administration, despite that polls show that 85% do not trust the president and 60% believe that corruption has increased during his administration. Peña Nieto has faced exposés that his family’s $7 million-dollar mansion in Mexico City was purchased for his family by a major government contractor and other dubious dealings that have affected him and members of his administration. The social networks are filled with notes regarding his family and his goernment’s extreme spending in a nation that still has over half the population living in poverty.
Peña Nieto’s popularity plummeted with his clumsy handling and then premature closing of the case of the 43 missing students of Ayotzinapa, and alleged extrajudicial executions in Tlatlaya. To top it off, the economic outlook for Mexico has been repeatedly readjusted downward since the year began.
A preliminary look at results shows the PRI strongholds continue to be in the countryside and areas where the PRI machine is deeply entrenched and well oiled. It took five of the nine disputed governorships, with the PAN winning two, the PRD taking Michoacan and independent candidate Jaime Rodriguez winning in the northern state of Nuevo Leon.
The conservative National Action Party (PAN) maintained its level of about 20% of the national vote, and will govern in Baja California Sur and the central state of Queretaro.
The PRD won only 10% of the vote, losing some 40 congressional seats. Its downfall reflects the split and the strong showing of the Movement for National Regeneration (MORENA), led by Andrés Manuel Lopez Obrador, which gained about 8.5% of the vote, significant especially for its first time out. MORENA snatched the majority in the Mexico City Assembly and of the city’s delegations from its progenitor. The Labor Party (PT) and the new Humanist Party stand to lose their registrations for not making the minimum bar of 3% of the vote.
The victory of an independent candidate, Jaime Rodriguez, in Nuevo Leon is a slap in the face to the political parties, especially the PRI. Rodriguez developed his career in the PRI and served as mayor of Garcia, where he gained international attention for confronting organized crime. He harvested the dissatisfaction of the people with the party system and of part of the PRI with its own process of internal selection. Nuevo Leon’s major city is Monterrey, the industrial center of the nation, making it a significant win for an independent candidate.
Persistence of Illegal Electoral Practices
Mexico’s elections were exceedingly expensive, costing some eight billion pesos. That, however, did not save them from accusations of dirty tricks. The recently renamed National Electoral Institute proved once again that it is very efficient at absorbing public funds and not so much at guaranteeing fair elections.
The recently renamed National Electoral Institute proved once again that it is much more efficient at absorbing public funds than guaranteeing fair elections.
Two examples: The Green Party ran a propaganda campaign that saturated Mexico’s media and public spaces beginning well before the campaign period, intensifying in the weeks before elections. The INE ordered a fine of $11.4 million pesos in one case of disguising party propaganda as public affairs announcements, but later slashed the amount to a painless $1 million. The party was also fined $70,000 pesos for handing out food baskets in the state of Quintana Roo. At one point, $517 million pesos in fines had been levied against the party for multiple violations of election laws, sparking a citizen movement to rescind its registration. The INE criticized the Green Party’s blatant violation of the principle of fairness, but the damage was done. The Party increased its electoral cache, guaranteeing the PRI coalition a ruling majority in Congress.
Second example: Days after the elections, the INE released results of its vote count reporting 100.61% of districts. In one district with 500 polling places, 550 were reported counted by the Institute. The institute recognized a “computer glitch”, while opposition parties railed at the loss of credibility, which was low to begin with. The INE is currently carrying out recounts involving 60% of the vote in an attempt to regain some level of believability.
The social networks have been full of citizen reports of vote buying, coercion of public employees with threats of firing, and militarization at the polls. Sadly, much of this has not been not adequately documented and sanctioned, much less prevented. Despite electoral laws and regulations that have undoubtedly advanced over the years, the institute seems to have little ability, or little desire, to make them common practice.
The government patted itself on the back for an elections day “free of incidents”. The loved ones of Antonio Vivar would reject this evaluation. Vivar was shot and killed by Federal Police, according to witnesses, in Tlapa, Guerrero in the midst of election-day conflict. There, the government raided the office of the protesting teachers’ union, then occupied the town, with tear gas and full riot gear. Vivar was murdered and many injured in the offensive.
Human rights organizations protested the high level of armed military and police presence at the polls. The Tlachinollan Human rights Center called it “an elections day in Guerrero and other states like Oaxaca, Michoacan and Chiapas, where an alarming number of state and federal security forces were deployed, as well as soldiers… This is a clear signal of the authoritarian regression that the construction of democracy confronts in the country.”
The violence in Tlapa was the most tragic on Election Day, but lower-intensity conflict characterizes the country from coast to coast and from one troubled border to the other. Conflict and inconformity formed the backdrop for the elections and will be the foreground for the shaky governing forces that by all indications will continue to publicly boast of stability while employing force to put down rising protest.
Midterm elections are never the stars on the electoral stage, but they are an important barometer of the nation’s political climate. The one unmeasurable factor in these elections is the participation of organized crime. The shadow posers remained in the shadows with numerous reports of places where they assigned candidacies, murdered unwanted candidates and manipulated the vote.
One thing is clear, even if people did vote and although the PRI maintained a majority, the discontent with the political system still runs deep. Corruption will continue to be a big factor– as we see in Honduras and Guatemala, we can only assume that Mexican politicians will also have to face the music in the near future. Citing boycotts by the democratic teachers oganization, the Guerrero Social Movement and indigenous groups this year, the president of the Electoral Institute warned that if social demands are not satisfied, more groups could opt to boycott or prevent the 2018 presidential elections
The consolidation of the PRI was a setback for Mexico in these elections and the rise of its lackey Green Party is a warning sign that the political elite may be aiming to make a plethora of logos look like pluralism while at the same time consolidating its rule.
On the other hand, people turned out to vote. Does that mean they have confidence in the electoral system, the parties and the politicians? No. Mexico has a more savvy populace that is skeptical, but wants to express itself. Social media also rose as a campaign strategy, challenging the propaganda machine of the mass media. This means candidates can do more with less money and thereby diminish the system’s dependence on the business elite and narcos. That’s all good for a democracy.
What’s clear is that the population will not limit its expressions to the voting box. The nation is still far from a U.S. system where maintaining democracy is defined as going to the polls when elections are held.
Mexicans will continue to fight for democracy in the streets and the discontent with structural reforms and the political system will continue to rise. Expect the barometer to rise.