Sunday’s Mexican Elections: A Bleak Panorama That Could Further Bedevil U.S.-Mexican Relations

The following is a statement by the Council on Hemispheric Affairs:

This Sunday, July 4, Mexico will hold elections for a number of important governorships and mayoralties, as well as a range of local positions. More than perhaps any election in the country since the 1950s, this round already has been marred by gruesome violence against candidates and supporters of all parties. Many of these events—the assassination of PRI gubernatorial candidate Rodolfo Torres Cantu in Tamaulipas and the dumping of a headless body outside the house of a candidate for the mayoralty of Ciudad Juarez—are unquestionably directly tied to drug gangs. The violence has raised well-founded fears that neither the elections nor the victories which they will yield will be insulated from the persuasive power of huge levels of narco-funds and narco-violence. Four years after President Felipe Calderón initiated his tragically ill-advised and poorly conceived attempt to defeat the drug gangs, the bitter harvest of the struggle is sure to come to light. As politics and narcotics become increasingly intertwined in Mexico, the cycle of violence will only be broken by a more sensible U.S. policy toward Mexico. Washington must reconsider its approach to domestic drug consumption, revive a long-lost commitment to social and economic development among Mexico’s lower classes, and avoid further militarizing an already sanguinary situation south of the border. Unless the U.S. takes such positive steps, the situation will invariably slide toward levels of instability, duplicating the Pakistan-Afghanistan crucible.

Sunday’s elections, which almost certainly will result in a sweeping victory for the PRI, speak to two major aspects of Mexican political life. First, there is the widespread disenchantment after 10 years of often inept PAN government that produced ineffectual domestic economic policies, failed to secure immigration reform in the U.S., and frustrated the hollow promises of electoral democracy. These shortcomings were already foreseen by a deeply disappointing 2006 presidential election that resulted in Calderón’s presidency. The new balloting is bound to cause more problems than will be solved. Both the PAN and the left-wing opposition PRD are political parties in various degrees of disarray, cleft by infighting, lacking charismatic leadership, and unable to build local bases of support on credible ideological grounds. The two parties always have been more than willing to provide hospitality to locally powerful defectors regardless of their ethical standards or the worthiness of their vision, and in 2010 these two ideologically bedecked opposition parties took the precipitous step of forming anti-PRI electoral alliances in a number of states. Mexican politics always have been, at their root, about local power cultivated through clientalism and group interest representation. But the PAN-PRD union belies claims about the inevitable advance of Mexican democracy. The resulting popular disenchantment has had the effect of driving many voters back to the PRI– “at least they knew how to govern”–or pushing them away from politics entirely.

Large-scale depoliticization only favors the PRI, marking the second major aspect revealed in the current election patterns: very little has changed. Intimidation of candidates and supporters in rural areas and the use of political machines to mobilize and control voters were the hallmarks of the PRI’s 71-year-rule, and there is little evidence that these practices will be diminished in any way. If anything, they have become even more necessary than before for all three major parties. In other words, the democratization of political life also has meant the democratization of political tactics. This is not to exculpate the PRI’s henchmen, or paint them in a benign light. Given the party’s already near-sweeping control of much of the country, its power brokers can be expected to engage in far more chicanery than the PRD or PAN could ever conjure up.

A massive PRI victory on Sunday, especially if it retains control of Puebla and Oaxaca, where the outgoing governors have been nationally repudiated, suggests that the party will likely capture the presidency in 2012. That the prospect of a PRI president does not evoke the sense of near-revulsion and the popular rejection that it did in 2006 indicates that both the failure of opposition government as well as the persistence of corrupt political practices and tainted grassroots actions will continue. Although there is little to suggest that the PRI could provide more effective leadership than its PAN predecessors, there is equally little reason to believe that the new generation of PRI leaders would prove any less disastrous than the governments of Presidents Fox and Calderón.