Mexican Midterm Elections: The Reemergence of the PRI

“PRI crushes the President,” declared Mexico City’s Milenio newspaper following the midterm elections on July 5. Mexico’s conservative President Felipe Calderón endured a significant setback when his Partido Acción Nacional (PAN) was unseated by the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI) in the House of Deputies (the lower house of Congress) and suffered losses in gubernatorial elections. Despite Calderón’s 69 percent approval rating in May, the victories for the PRI are seen as the result of voter disenchantment with the PAN, and overall public frustration with increasing drug-related violence and the global economic crisis. The PAN will now have to fight an uphill battle to win the 2012 presidency and even will be hard-pressed to have its budget passed by the House of Deputies without making significant compromises.

Reshuffling Power
Overall, the PRI won 36.6 percent of the vote, while the PAN earned 28 percent in municipal, gubernatorial and federal elections. The left-leaning Partido de la Revolución Democrática (PRD), Mexico’s third major party, earned only 12 percent of the vote. This was largely due to internal divisions within the party and former presidential candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s past divisive campaign and his move to support the Partido del Trabajo. Although the PRI doubled its number of seats in the 500-member House of Deputies, it still does not have an outright majority. By forming alliances with smaller parties like the Nueva Alianza (PNA) and Verdes (PVEM), however, the PRI is expected to be able to push its agendas through the legislature. The PRI also won five out of six gubernatorial races, including two in presumed conservative states that historically were supportive of the PAN. In response to the election results, PAN President Germán Martínez resigned, taking personal responsibility for the party’s inability to achieve its electoral goals.

The recently-elected 61st legislature closely parallels the makeup of the 59th under former PAN President Vicente Fox from 2003-2006, which was the most bipartisan and productive legislature in Mexico’s history. In the 60th legislature, the PRI and PAN voted together 95.5 percent of the time, suggesting that, barring a dramatic leftward swing by the PRI, one should still expect a high degree of cooperation in the just-elected legislature. Despite historic hostilities between the PRI and PAN, neither party ran campaigns that were so insular that they would breed increased polarization or enhanced divergence in their political agendas. However, the PAN is significantly debilitated because its 28 percent in the lower house is not enough to provide the one-third majority needed to sustain a Presidential veto. This will prove especially onerous during the drafting of the budget, likely Mexico’s most important piece of legislation in the next several years.

Fortunately for the PAN, however, the Senate is not up for reelection until 2012. The party currently controls an “effective vote” of 49.6 percent in the senate compared with 25 percent for the PRI and 14.9 percent for the PRD, allowing the former to act as a virtual majority party. This will allow it to veto certain parts of the budget such as oil revenue and general spending limits, allowing Calderón’s veto to be sustained in the Senate should the need arise.

On the day of the election, 43 percent of voters went to the polls, which was slightly higher than the last mid-term election turnout in 2003 and higher than election officials expected in many districts. However, high numbers of voided votes were cast by constituents affiliated with the controversial campaign called Voto en Blanco. This campaign initiative promoted writing giant X’s on the ballots or filling in all of the candidate choices to render the ballot null as a form of protest against the political direction the country was taking. Election officials estimated that about one in twenty votes turned out to be void, with as many as one in ten in Mexico City. The millions of voided votes were the result of a lackluster campaign and are representative of widespread voter disenchantment with Mexico’s political and economic direction.

PRI Revival?
The PRI campaigned on a platform that depicted the reinvention of an old brand. It did this with a new slogan that read: “PRI, proven experience, new attitude.” The PRI dominated Mexican politics for 71 years, until PAN candidate Vicente Fox won the presidency in 2000. The nationalistic party of Mexico is nominally centrist, but its legacy is riddled with corruption, fraud and economic mismanagement. The PRI is trying desperately to revamp its image and prove that its days of overextended authoritarian rule throughout the 20th century are long gone. In comparison with the 2006 Presidential election, the PRI experienced a net turnout gain of more than 2 million voters while all of the other parties together experienced a decrease of nearly 7 million. This shift is due, in part, to a return of many PRI voters who cast ballots for Obrador in 2006 and to the disenchantment of PAN supporters. The PRI earned significant popular support with a grassroots approach that depicted the party as modern and clean, while focusing especially on the economic well being of Mexican families.

The midterm election has provided a promising opportunity for the PRI, but it was not a landslide victory and the party does not yet have a strong enough popular mandate at its disposal. The delicate balance of power among the parties indicates that the PRI cannot afford to revert back to the corruption and repression of the opposition parties that characterized its 20th century political control. The PRI has been striving to reform its image to reflect a new, open and more democratic political entity. The midterm elections place the PRI as the frontrunner vying to recapture the presidency in the 2012 elections.

Economic Implications and Domestic Security
With industrial and oil production down, unemployment rates up and decreasing remittances from the United States, economic woes weighed heavily upon the Mexican electorate. The results of the July 5 elections will likely hamper Calderón’s plans to revitalize the Mexican economy, which is currently in its deepest recession since the 1994 economic crisis. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development has forecasted that the economy could retract almost 8 percent in 2009. Calderón’s proposals to overhaul the county’s economic performance include tax increases and reduction of Mexico’s dependence on its diminishing oil revenues.

Pushing its fiscal and political agendas will prove to be more difficult now that the PRI dominates the House of Deputies. While the 61st Legislature will perhaps allow for at least the appearance of the bipartisanship efforts of previous legislatures, gridlock is to be expected on the more contentious issues such as budget formation and tax reforms. The PAN has indicated that tax hikes should be implemented to boost public revenue, but the PRI has been reluctant to introduce any new tax hikes, especially since the party is eagerly eyeing the 2012 presidential ballot. There is also a pressing need to reduce dependence on dwindling oil revenues. Lower revenues are the result of decreasing oil production, which has been down 6.5 percent in May from a year earlier. Oil provides 37 percent of Mexico’s revenue. Such a large dependence could deepen the economic crisis unless revenue reforms are established and the economy is diversified.

Security also remains a significant concern among Mexican voters and the PRI could hinder Calderón’s offensive against drug cartels and organized crime. Since Calderón declared a war against drug cartels in 2006, there has been a dramatic increase in drug violence and casualties. In total, there have been an estimated 10,500 drug-related deaths, with a record of 800 casualties just in the past June. The PRI’s campaign has strongly criticized Calderón’s hardline approach, and the party has pledged to launch policies to curb the violence and quell the tension. The violence in Mexico has escalated into a significant humanitarian crisis and a contentious issue that has resulted in frustration with the current regime. Yet neither the PRI nor other parties have proposed tangible alternative solutions. The PAN, however, insisted to voters that Calderón’s policies were necessary to bring down violence in ungovernable areas racked by organized crime and causalities. Mexicans of all political persuasions are impatient for economic reforms and domestic security, and if the PRI uses its newly acquired control in the lower house to block reforms, it is in danger of alienating voters by representing itself as a politically manipulative and stalemate party prior to the crucial 2012 elections.

Mexico’s Immediate Future
The victory of the PRI in the 2009 midterm elections has drastically changed the political landscape of the remaining three and a half years of the Calderón presidency. Without controlling a one-third segment of the House of Deputies, the PAN will not be able to defend Calderón’s veto on the budget and will be forced to make significant compromises. Not only will this tone down Calderón’s anti-narcotics crusade, it will increase the funds available to PRI governors for campaigns in the 2012 election, further strengthening its prospects for a return to executive power.

At the same time, the electoral results have historical precedent, and congressional coalitions will likely mirror those from the 59th legislature from 2003-2006. Though high-profile projects like the upcoming budget may produce gridlock, one can expect continuing agreement on most policies. Furthermore, though a shift of power clearly has taken place within the Mexican political process, it should be remembered that the popular vote was nearly even for the PRI and PAN, and Calderón’s veto can in part be defended in the Senate. The real challenge for the PAN will be to regain the confidence of the Mexican people before the 2012 elections which, barring rapid economic recovery and a sudden anti-corruption streak, appears unlikely.