Mexico’s July 4th Elections: Defined by Mixed Results

On Sunday, July 4th, voters in twelve of Mexico’s thirty-one states headed to the polls for gubernatorial and other local elections. Many analysts had predicted a sweeping victory for the PRI, which had gained momentum due to the ruling PAN’s failure to significantly improve Mexico’s economy or put a stop to drug violence. A big win for the PRI in these elections would indicate that the party was poised to take the presidency in 2012, regaining power after more than seventy years of continuous PRI rule ended with the election of Vicente Fox in 2000.

The results of Sunday’s elections, however, proved to be less clear-cut than some had predicted. The PRI did win the majority of the states up for grabs, taking the governorships of nine out of twelve states, including three where they had been out of power for more than ten years. However, they also lost three key states where they have been historically strong: Oaxaca, Sinaloa, and Puebla.

Unexpected Alliances

In all three of the states where the PRI was defeated, the winning candidate represented a surprising alliance between two parties: the Partido de la Revolución Democrática (PRD), and the ruling Partido Acción Nacional (PAN). The two parties are usually opposed to one another, with the PRD leaning left while the PAN leans right. Just four years ago, the 2006 presidential elections saw Mexico fiercely divided between two candidates, PRD’s Andrés Manuel López Obrador, commonly known as AMLO, and PAN’s Felipe Calderón. Those elections were extremely close, and although Calderón was eventually declared the winner, many AMLO supporters refused to accept the results, protesting for weeks and accusing PAN of election fraud. The political atmosphere was, to say the least, very polarized.

Today, however, the situation is quite different. PAN and PRD worked together in three states to successfully prevent a PRI sweep of Sundays’ elections, forming alliances such as Oaxaca’s “Alliance United for Peace and Progress,” which included PAN, PRD, and two smaller parties, Convergencia and Partido del Trabajo (PT). Despite their widely differing ideologies, these parties were able to come together on an anti-PRI platform. George Grayson, a professor at the College of William & Mary and author of Mexico: Narco-Violence and a Failed State?, said that “the PAN and the Left want to place road blocks in the PRI`s path” and explained that “there is no ideology involved” in these alliances, something which “offends ideologues in the PAN and PRD.” On Sunday, such ideology-free alliances produced PRI losses in three states which have previously been bastions of power for the PRI: Oaxaca, Puebla, and Sinaloa.

The loss of Oaxaca was a particularly painful one for the PRI. The PRI has controlled Oaxaca essentially without interruption since the party was founded. On Sunday, however, voters spoke out against PRI governor Ulises Ruiz, accused of human rights abuses in dealing with a teacher’s union protest in his state. They instead elected alliance candidate Gabino Cué with 50% of the vote, compared to the PRI’s 42%, according to the Wall Street Journal’s reporting of preliminary results. In Sinaloa and Puebla, as in Oaxaca, the PRI held control for decades, until it was taken from them by PAN-PRD alliances on Sunday. The fact that these three states were formerly bastions of PRI power makes Sunday’s results there all the more important. Although the PRI may have won nine states, its loss in these three is of equal importance, and demonstrates that the PRI is far from having the 2012 presidency in the bag.

It is important to note, however, that these wounds are far from fatal for the PRI. In all three of these states it was specific local conditions, such as the terrible records of PRI candidates accused of human rights abuses and toxic relationships with drug traffickers, that led voters to support anti-PRI alliances. The ability of such local discontent to translate to national PRI losses is questionable. In fact, Sunday’s losses in Oaxaca, Sinaloa, and Puebla could actually be helpful to the PRI if they lead to more reform within the party, allowing it to emerge with new candidates and a new image by 2012. This is far from impossible, as in the past the PRI has shown a unique ability to recreate itself in order to stay in power. As Grayson put it, “The PRI follows the ‘3 Ps’–pragmatism, pragmatism, pragmatism.”

Furthermore, voters in Oaxaca, Sinaloa, and Puebla voted against the PRI more than for anything else in particular. Although this willingness to put ideology aside is what allowed PAN-PRD alliances to form in the first place, conflicting views may lead to problems when it comes to actually governing, and it remains to be seen whether such alliances are ultimately sustainable.

There is already talk of producing PAN-PRD candidates for 2011 elections, especially in Mexico State. According to Grayson,“Cesar Nava and Jesus Ortega get along extremely well and they will attempt to forge effective coalitions. Their major goal is a PAN-Left coalition to capture Mexico State next year and take some of the luminous paint off Peña Nieto’s image.” If such an alliance is successful and Peña Nieto, current governor of Mexico State, is defeated, this could affect the presidential race, as he is seen as a likely PRI presidential candidate.

However, the prospect of a PAN-PRD alliance working on a national level remains unlikely at best. John Bailey, director of the Mexico Project at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service, said that “something unusual and dramatic would have to happen” for such an alliance to form in 2012.

Violence and Voter Turnout

These elections were marred by violence as Mexico’s drug war raged on, even as voters headed to the polls. The PRI’s gubernatorial candidate in Tamaulipas, Rodolfo Torre, was assassinated on June 28th, along with several members of his staff. A severed head was placed in front of the home of Hector Murguia, the PRI’s candidate for mayor of Ciudad Juarez. Most of the violence was unleashed on candidates who promised to be particularly tough on drug trafficking, as was the case with Torre.

Many predicted that such violence would lead to low turnout in the July 4 elections, as voters abstained out of fear, or out of the feeling that no party had the ability to effectively curb drug-related violence. According to Bailey, “the most important effect [of drug-related violence on the elections] is to show the disconnect and impotence of the political regime and state to deal with high-intensity crime.” Grayson said that such an effect would favor the PRI, because it has more money and a “better machine.”

Predictions of high abstention rates turned out to be correct in several cases, including that of Tamaulipas. The New York Times hailed these elections as a victory for democracy, rather than any one party, in Mexico. While it is certainly true that elections went mostly smoothly without much further interference from drug gangs, it is also true that the drug war has begun to affect democratic processes, as high abstention estimates and growing disillusionment indicate.

Conclusions

These elections seem to be defined by the fact that it is rather difficult to say just what their outcome means. The PRI did not win a sweeping victory, nor did it suffer an irreparable defeat. Losing Oaxaca, Puebla, and Sinaloa was certainly a blow, but gaining Zacatecas, Tlaxcala, and Aguascalientes was a promising sign for priístas. PAN-PRD alliances had great success in several states, but their ability to do the same next year or on the national stage in 2012 remains dubious.

In short, although many believed these elections would be key indicators as to what would happen in 2012, the results of that presidential race still seem to be largely unpredictable. The PRI remains in a strong position, and the parties which oppose it, such as PAN and PRD, still must contend with fragmentation. However, as Sunday’s elections showed, nothing is a sure thing for the PRI, and it is certainly possible that it could lose its momentum in the next two years.