Mexico’s July 4th Elections: The Meaning of the PRI Defeats

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The following is a press memorandum written by a COHA Research Fellow:

After losing three important states in Sunday’s gubernatorial elections, the luster seemed to be off the comeback trail for Mexico’s PRI. Subsequently, some analysts have pointed to the potential strength of PAN-PRD alliances and the vibrancy of Mexican democracy. Yet these results ultimately show neither a flourishing democratic system nor the emergence of a viable opposition to the PRI.

First, abstention rates on Sunday were not insubstantial, reaching 60-70% in places. This can hardly be qualified as a triumph for democracy as the New York Times suggested on Monday.

Second, the PRI only suffered defeats where localized conditions allowed opposition coalitions to coalesce against repudiated PRI governors and, in the case of Sinaloa, the specter of narco-corruption. Ultimately, what this shows is that the PRI lost when Mexicans voted against it for localized, identifiable reasons, rather than in support of a coherent ideological viewpoint opposed to it. This pattern resembles the situation in 2000, when Fox attracted a wide spectrum of voters enticed by the prospect of “change.” And while the PAN and the PRD are considering several more topical alliances for state elections in 2011, the problematic result of such a de facto two party system would be the creation of an opportunistic power-seeking, but ultimately ideologically amorphous, Left-Right coalition against the ever centrist PRI. This could further fracture the already fractious Left, and would almost certainly leave Mexicans with unpalatable choices between an uninspiring PAN-PRD program and the PRI. Moreover, this situation could lead to legislative gridlock.

For the PRI, the hope of regaining the presidency in 2012 remains very much alive. Its likely presidential candidate, Enrique Peña Nieto, current governor of the Estado de Mexico, will almost certainly see a PAN-PRD coalition challenging his chosen successor for the governorship in 2011. A loss there would be damaging, but for the moment the PRI has little reason to fear that a successful PAN-PRD alliance will coalesce when it comes to the presidency, and the PRI’s national organization, without hesitation, remains tremendously strong.