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Mexico’s Important Presidential Campaign: Behind the Smiling Faces and Big Talk

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• Mexico’s political campaign is being hard fought, and the stakes of this ballot are enormous.
• While the five candidates themselves are interesting figures, there are important factors that are influencing the ballot from behind the scenes.
• Five key issues are at work: the impact of the Zapatista’s “Other Campaign;” the role of Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas; President Fox’s tainted legacy and its impact on the PAN candidate; can the PRI remain intact; and how Chávez could play a role with Mexican voters.

On January 19, Mexico’s five presidential hopefuls kicked off a six-month campaign for the country’s highest office. In both a regional and domestic context, the election carries tremendous significance. Some analysts have suggested that the early strength of populist candidate Andres Manuel López Obrador – Mexico’s contribution to the “pink tide” now sweeping the region – might make the July 2 vote a potential watershed event with hemispheric implications.

The ballot also marks a milestone for Mexico’s democratic transition: as the 2000 presidential victory of Vicente Fox and his subsequently troubled presidency, recedes into the past, the country is still struggling to find political and socio-economic models that deliver on the promise of democracy. As for Fox, whose victory ended 71 years of authoritarian one-party rule, he has found himself unable to carry that momentum into the realm of meaningful reform and a modernized society. Stymied by entrenched political opposition forces, and sabotaged by his own fatal flaws of indecision and an organic need to be submissive to Washington, his presidency is almost universally regarded as a disappointment, particularly because the Bush administration failed to deliver on the IOU’s that Fox won with his always ready servility.

Given the combination of such factors, the campaign will play out under a harsh spotlight, and levels of intrigue already are running high. Much of the attention thus far has focused on the candidates themselves, yet this personalistic analysis fails to grasp the complex issues which will color the attitudes of the electorate as July 2 approaches. Behind the three main actors in the race – López Obrador, Felipe Calderón Hinojosa, and Roberto Madrazo Pintado – lie a series of questions that will impact the outcome of the election as much as the candidates themselves. In this report, COHA will examine five of these hidden factors: the impact of the Zapatistas, the role of PRD founder Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas, a presidential taint, PRI infighting, and the specter of Chávez as he might affect Mexico.

A Thumbnail of the Race
The three main actors in the race occupy distinct political positions and represent different factions of the electorate. Early favorite and former Mexico City mayor Andres Manuel López Obrador, from the left-wing Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), is a longtime opposition politician who has consistently been at odds with the Fox government, and draws his support largely from the country’s poor urban sectors. Felipe Calderón Hinojosa, like Fox a member of the National Action Party (PAN), is a conservative whose open-market beliefs signal continuity with Fox’s pro-business and slavishly pro-American administration. Finally, Roberto Madrazo Pintado, who secured the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI)’s nomination after buzz-sawing his way through any internal opposition, represents little more than a return to the authoritarianism and corruption of yesteryear, which Fox slightly managed to sand down.

Two more candidates, Roberto Campa Cifrián and Patricia Mercado Castro, have little hope of winning, but may nevertheless play important roles as they could siphon votes from major candidates in a Ralph Nader fashion. Campa in particular, a dissident priista, could sap significant strength from Madrazo.

1) What impact will the Zapatistas and the newly launched “Other Campaign” have on the race?
Since their New Year’s Day emergence from the Lacandon jungle in Southern Mexico in 1994, the Zapatistas have demonstrated an impressive capacity to command national attention and wide sympathy. While that prominence has waned somewhat over the past several years, Subcomandante Marcos’ latest venture – a counter-campaign that may signal the movement’s permanent transition into the political arena – has succeeded in raising the EZLN’s profile ahead of the election. The “Other Campaign,” as its publicity effort is known, centers around Delegate Zero (Marcos’ adopted political persona), and offers a pointed critique of Mexico’s traditional political process which, he claims, ill-serves the needs of the many.

While ostensibly a completely apolitical effort – more of a civic campaign than anything else – the Other Campaign at its heart is a political movement aimed at raising the awareness of the average citizen and could offer the EZLN greater leverage with the incoming administration. Already, the strategy has raised the profile of indigenous issues in the election, as López Obrador has made the recognition of such native rights a top campaign priority.

But the Other Campaign is not interested in just reciting political platitudes, and the Zapatistas will soon be reaffirming that. More than López Obrador, the EZLN represents the authentic needs of the country’s poor and indigenous. This paradox of criticizing the establishment without offering an alternative has troubled some, who feel that the Other Campaign, in effect, is promoting abstentionism, which already threatens to mar the election. While Marcos has asserted that this is surely not the case, the Zapatistas’ transformation into a political front undoubtedly could threaten the coherence of the Mexican left, opening a schism between the populism of the PRD and the indigenous Marxism of the EZLN. As such, it could potentially slice into López Obrador’s support base if Marcos, who has expressed public disdain for the PRD candidate, proves effective in spreading his message.

It remains an open question whether or not the Other Campaign will plant significant seeds of doubt in the country as a whole. In fact it could fizzle, particularly if the major media doesn’t give the movement its due. The traditional political race will certainly leave many voters wishing for an alternative, but Delegate Zero will not offer a wide enough remedy for the country’s huge disaffected population. The Zapatistas have always struggled to project a national political vision in order to capture the support of the country’s moderate “swing” voters, and, in the end, the Other Campaign may leave only a passing mark on the political landscape.

2) Cárdenas on the Sideline
Marcos is not the only figure competing with López Obrador for the soul of the Mexican left. Son of the venerable President Lázaro Cárdenas (1934-40), PRD founder, and three times its presidential candidate, Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas has been left on the sidelines of the 2006 campaign. Many felt that Cárdenas secretly hoped to once again carry his party’s banner in the election, and there have been whispers of estrangement between the two men.

While, on his own account, López Obrador is undeniably popular, Cárdenas is the grandfather of the modern Mexican left, and until recently its most prominent political figure. His political visions and national programs are perhaps more refined than López Obrador’s, and he is among a miniscule number of Mexican politicians whose integrity is unquestioned. Although Cárdenas has never been an effective campaigner – he lacks the showy style that makes for good television – he would nevertheless lend an invaluable gravitas and substance to López Obrador’s presidential bid. Recently, Cárdenas has remarked that he would attend López Obrador rallies “if he is invited,” effectively offering to support the candidate in exchange for a respectful nod, which has not yet been offered. A rapprochement would undoubtedly be a good thing for López Obrador, but he could go still further, and incorporate components of Cárdenas’ “A Mexico for All” program into his own national project. Such a step would solidify López Obrador’s credentials with the left, and perhaps win him some support among the middle class who harbor deep respect for the son of Mexico’s greatest modern president. López Obrador would be a fool not to try to woo Cárdenas, and for that matter Delegate Zero as well.

3) A Presidential Taint
After winning a surprise victory over Fox favorite Santiago Creel Miranda in the PAN’s primary, it was somewhat uncertain how much of an endorsement Felipe Calderón would receive from the Mexican president. Nevertheless, despite whatever ideological differences may exist between the two men – Fox comes from a more progressive, entrepreneurial wing of the PAN, whereas Calderón represents the party’s traditional Catholic roots – Fox has enthusiastically backed Calderón’s candidacy.

However, this support may not be the blessing that it appears to be. First, the cumulative effect of five years of disappointment and back-tracking have inflicted major damage to Fox’s legacy and his popularity, perhaps making his endorsement more of a liability than a benefit. Furthermore, recent scandals involving Fox’s wife, Marta Sahagún, and some of her children, have cast a haze of corruption on an already tarnished presidency, and by extension cast doubt on Calderón’s integrity.

Additionally, as part of the legacy from the 71-year PRI regime, the country is exceedingly leery of executive intervention in the electoral process, and it already has been alleged that Calderón has, without adverse results, been able to flaunt rules laid down by the federal elections board. Furthermore, Fox has done himself no honor by speaking out of turn in his veiled denunciations of López Obrador. As Mexico attempts to move away from its past, any perceived meddling in the election on Fox’s part could bring on a significant backlash as voters become further disenchanted with the PAN.

4) The PRI Unmade?
Fragmentation within the PRI began emerging long before the party lost the presidency in 2000, but since the momentous election of that year, the processes of its disintegration have accelerated, and competition around the primary process has brought on a full-fledged breakdown. A September rift between two of the party’s most high profile figures, Roberto Madrazo and Elba Esther Gordillo, led to the latter’s eventual defection, which proved a damaging blow as she commanded the loyalty of the country’s powerful teachers union and had a popular reformist reputation. The ugly primary campaign which followed, saw continual back and forth accusations of corruption, only further tearing at the party’s already fragile vitals.

Gordillo’s break with the PRI led to the creation of a new party affiliated with the teachers union, the New Alliance. Given the personal nature of the dispute between Madrazo and Gordillo, most Mexican analysts feel that the new party’s decision to run Roberto Campa Cifrián, also a PRI defector, in the election was a clear effort to cut into Madrazo’s support. It is uncertain how damaging this strategy will turn out to be for the PRI, although the possibility of a powerful coalition of the New Alliance and the PAN would be an ominous development for Madrazo’s already slipping odds. Although Gordillo has repeatedly discounted the possibilities of such an alliance, Calderón has included elements in his campaign – particularly in the realm of education – which seem to be openly courting the Maestra.

In its heyday, the PRI was a political juggernaut, capable of winning elections by tremendous margins, not just through pervasive fraud, but also because of its unparalleled ability to rally supporters to the polls by the ebullient use of patronage. Madrazo, however, can no longer rely on only the strength of that political machine. The break with Gordillo could cost him the votes of the teachers union, and campaign finance restrictions will limit the PRI’s traditional means of acquiring support in poor rural areas. This combination could ultimately prove too costly for Madrazo to overcome.

5) Chávez off-stage
The specter of the controversial Venezuelan leader has hung over every election in South America during the past year, and Hugo Chávez’s figure will likely appear over Mexico’s electoral campaign as well, although at this point it is uncertain what impact he may have. Certainly Chávez will favor López Obrador, who, to a certain extent, shares his ideological values, and the Venezuelan’s dislike of Fox will undoubtedly carry over to Calderón.

But any open ideological interjections from Caracas will produce mixed reactions, probably none of them good for López Obrador. The PRD candidate’s base among the poor is already fairly secure, and any fiery rhetoric from Chávez will have little impact on them. On the other hand, many moderate Mexicans are wary of López Obrador’s populist policies, and a blustery endorsement from Chávez may push them strongly towards Calderón. But those who know Chávez’s style could feel that there is no likelihood that he will consciously arm López Obrador’s enemies with such a weapon.

The Mixing Bowl
Much time remains before July 2 election, and many other additional factors will come into play beyond the five enumerated above, but, as the campaign begins, these are among the most prominent. It is far too early to predict all of the answers, and recent poll trends only suggest the race growing tighter. Yet the impact of these issues on the candidates will determine much about the electoral path ahead, and they may have long lasting implications for the country’s political future, particularly among the left.