Mexican Politics for America: Part I

Today, Presidential Politics for America brings you its first ever interview. Our subject is Nathan Paluck, a Connecticut resident until he attended New York’s Fordham University. After graduating in 2005, he found himself working various jobs in Latin America, Mexico in particular. His decade living on the other side of the border has given him insight into the politics of our southern neighbor. While we gear up for our 2018 midterm elections, much of which will be impacted by the progress of a wall between Nathan and his home country, Mexico will hold its presidential election, much of which will be impacted by its candidates’ stance on Nathan’s home country, including its colorful President, Donald Trump. On Friday, campaigning officially began.

Let us, for a couple days at least, widen our focus from the daily drama of American politics. Below, Nathan helps broaden our horizons. Without further ado: Mexican Politics for America…

PPFA: Thank you for this opportunity, Nathan. Before we wade too deeply into what I’m sure is a race drenched in nuance, help our readers by giving some context about Mexican presidential elections. How often do they occur, and to what extent do they resemble the American system?

Nathan Paluck: A pleasure and an honor, Ian!

The basics: Unlike many Latin American countries that smartly use run-off systems, Mexico’s president is elected by a one-and-done popular vote. For example, in 2012 Enrique Peña Nieto garnered 3.3 million more votes than his main opponent, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (more on these characters later). Unlike the U.S., winning by three million votes sent Peña Nieto to victory. He earned a six-year term at Los Pinos, the presidential mansion in Mexico City, with no option for reelection. Like the U.S., the president can be a very unpopular winner: Peña Nieto got only 38.2 percent of the vote, hardly a mandate.

From a voter’s perspective, elections always take place on Sunday (hear that, America?); this year it falls on July 1. Selling alcohol is banned the entire 48 hours of election weekend (reminder to expats like myself to stock up). To vote, Mexicans need a so-called INE, the national I.D. and voter registration card. Incredibly, the last date for getting your INE or even replacing a lost card was in January, five months before elections. Voter suppression: check. (I know quite a few concerned Mexican citizens who for some reason don’t have their INE, and oh well, now it’s too late.) Regardless, Mexicans participate more than Americans, with 65 percent voting participation over the past four presidential elections, about 10 percent better than the U.S. They will also vote for the entirety of their bloated bicameral congress: 500 representatives and 128 senators. Congress is elected by a rather complicated mix of local and regional representation. Members of congress are not household names as in the U.S., and they are generally regarded as overpaid, corrupt individuals, who occasionally get into fisticuffs during session.

The campaigns are publicly funded, and in 2018, 157 million dollars will go to nine political parties and some independents. For Mexicans that is an incomprehensible amount of money to see their politicians receive. After last year’s 7.1-scale earthquake that killed 471 and destroyed 50,000 homes, political parties pledged to give back chunks of public money for reconstruction. Reports have shown that some party money has been returned, but no one can seem to locate it within federal agencies, and few know how it will be put to use for post-quake relief. Sadly, this typifies the labyrinth of confusion of official responses from Mexico’s public institutions. As a result, few Mexicans expect to receive honest answers from government, and many believe that the truth is impossible to uncover.

PPFA: Are there any primaries? Or any official stages other than a national, general election on a midsummer’s Sunday?

NP: The parties hold internal elections to pick their candidate, the methods of which vary by party and are typically opaque and scorned as entirely un-democratic. For example, President Peña Nieto’s Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) officially held a vote among 19,000 delegates, however most observers believe they reverted to their old ways of applying a dedazo, a tap of the finger from the current president to his successor.

PPFA: Cool, so not at all like the Democratic Party in 2016.

Let’s get into it. What’s a broad narrative you can ascribe to the election?

NP: This year’s elections seem like a particularly poignant moment in Mexico’s history. Record levels of homicides plague the country, their typically reliable neighbor to the North has turned unpredictable and unfriendly, and there exists growing discontent for corrupt politics-as-usual.

It feels like a change election. A recent poll shows top concerns are combating insecurity and corruption, two tasks the PRI has shown it cannot do. In the last six years, the incumbent PRI has had so many executive branch scandals, governors on the lam after plundering state coffers, and horrific narco-massacres under the noses of complicit local governments that any other political party would have dissolved into the annals of history already. (Oh, and President Peña Nieto’s approval ratings are at 22 percent, with 47 percent of voters said they would “never vote for the PRI” in a March poll.)

PPFA: Fascinating! So if we write off the incumbent PRI, who are the contenders to inherit the presidency?

NP: Who will step in? Two possibilities:

1) The left with Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, nom de guerre AMLO, who makes CEOs sweat nervously and the rest of the population generally yawn.

AMLO is back after creating his very own leftist party, Morena, which can be translated as “Woman of Color,” or maybe it’s “Party of Color.” And, make no mistake, all the presidential candidates are white.  

He was a popular mayor of Mexico City from 2000 to 2005. Since then, he has been running for president, barely losing in 2006 (in a process many call fraudulent) and then again in 2012. He then formed his own party, Morena. Mexico’s right paints him as a Hugo Chavez wannabe, and U.S. media loves using the term “fiery populist,” though anyone who’s seen him speak knows he’s about as fiery as an 8 a.m. Microeconomics 101 class.

PPFA: Been there. What’s AMLO’s platform?

NP: AMLO says he will “review” all oil and gas contracts since Mexico opened its energy sector for private investment (Peña Nieto’s signature constitutional reform), and that NAFTA is a bad deal for Mexico. Meanwhile, the progressive left views him as socially backwards (he skirts openly supporting gay marriage and abortion, legal only in certain parts of Mexico), and everyone is skeptical of a certain messianic aura surrounding him. Nevertheless, AMLO solidly leads all polls, ranging from a 6 to 16 percent lead. His latest television spot is a modest plea to the undecided 20 percent: “Neither Chavism or Trumpism… yes to Mexicanism. Don’t let them scare you, trust me, I won’t let you down.”

PPFA: Okay, so that’s AMLO. You mentioned a second major candidate?

NP: Yes. 2) The conservative National Action Party (PAN), which had presidents from 2000 to 2012, chose young leader Ricardo Anaya.

Ricardo Anaya (left) is the PAN candidate after fending off Margarita Zavala (middle) and loyalists to her husband, ex-president Felipe Calderón (right). Zavala is now a single-digit independent in the polls.

Their strategy for catching up to AMLO is by forming a “coalition” of the rag-tag assortment of smaller parties, including the once-rival leftist Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD). It’s the ideological equivalent of a ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ platform, and one head-scratcher was their recent proposal for a Universal Basic Income. Anaya is second place in the polls, however, and is projecting a tough-on-corruption image, saying that he will investigate acts of corruption by Peña Nieto’s administration. (While locking up ex-presidents has become vogue in Latin America, it has no precedent in Mexico.)

PPFA: Here we just threaten to lock up presidential candidates.

NP: Anaya is possibly being investigated for dealings with an accused money-launderer, and Mexico’s attorney general’s office released a video showing Anaya cursing at an Anti-Money Laundering official, which raised concerns about the PRI-dominated government meddling in the electoral process (sound familiar?). Meanwhile, AMLO is watching with glee from the sidelines.

PPFA: I can see why this is an exciting contest! Is there anyone else to keep an eye on?

NP: We have to mention PRI’s candidate, since you can never truly write off the political party dubbed “the perfect dictatorship” after their iron-grip rule from 1929 to 2000. Indeed, Jose Antonio Meade is climbing in the polls.

Peña Nieto (center-right) tapped his trusted minister Jose Meade (center-left) to try to continue the PRI’s reign.

The consummate minister (once under former president Felipe Calderón, three times under Peña Nieto), Meade is a highly respected technocrat and all-around good guy who many people think sold his soul, so to speak, by accepting the PRI candidacy. He is projecting his experience, positioning himself as an everyday man (photos playing dominoes with his kids and of his wife grocery shopping), and promises to combat corruption. Many find that last part curious, since 3.4 billion pesos have gone missing from the federal government in which he participated.

PPFA: We have our candidates! It’s a perfect spot to end Part I. In Part II, Nathan will make sense of it all. We’ll get into how candidates campaign, the narco situation, and certainly the role of one Donald J. Trump. See you when we finish our preview of Mexican Politics for America.


4 thoughts on “Mexican Politics for America: Part I”

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