Mexican Politics for America: Part II

(Sorry for the delay in Part II, dear PPFA readers. Apparently two people writing a column in two different countries takes twice as long. To make it up to you, I plan on three posts in eight days! Check back soon.)

Welcome back for Part II of “Mexican Politics for America” — an interview with Nathan Paluck, our Latin American Correspondent. In Part I, we learned how Mexico’s presidential elections work and who the leading contenders are for July 1’s contest. Those contenders include:

  1. The favorite: two-time presidential loser Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, better known as AMLO. Representing Mexico’s left through the party he created, Moreno, he’s gained support from about 40 percent of Mexico’s electorate, good enough for a double-digit lead in a divided field. Still, he’s had big polling leads in a losing effort before. Most of the country wants no part of him, but 40 percent can easily win the election if the other 60 doesn’t coalesce.
  2. His closest challenger is Ricardo Anaya, the young nominee of the conservative National Action Party (PAN). PAN is looking to assemble a hodge-podge of groups to overtake AMLO due to what those in the coalition see as his overly socialist platform. Surprisingly, PAN has welcomed into the coalition its old rival, the leftist Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), which is, quite dramatically, AMLO’s old party.
  3. In third is Jose Antonio Meade, the likable, technocratic nominee who may have sold his soul to el diablo by accepting the nomination from the generally despised Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). The PRI currently occupies Los Pinos, the Mexican presidential mansion, with outgoing President Enrique Peña Nieto (who can only serve one six-year term). Unfortunately for Meade, his party and President are incredibly unpopular, and the PRI has been all but written off. For more on that, make sure to read Part I.

All told, an average of recent polls suggest we have a race that looks like this:


Meanwhile, one recent poll found 28 percent of Mexican voters are undecided and another found one-third could change their mind, which suggests an extremely fluid race with 11 weeks still to go.

I don’t know about you, PPFA readers, but I’m very much looking forward to taking a closer look. Let’s get back to Nathan.

Presidential Politics for America: Nathan, I don’t think we can go too much further without addressing the elephant in the room (an idiom that works on a delightful number of levels). To what extent is there a “Trump Effect” on the 2018 Mexican presidential race?

Nathan Paluck: Trump is certainly a presence here in Mexico — Twitter proclamations are covered above the fold in newspapers, popular theater comedies satirize him — but then again, Uncle Sam is always a looming presence in Mexico. Is Trump an issue for voters? No. Mexicans are rightfully more concerned with their own domestic problems. It has helped that, aside from the bluster, so far little has changed in the day-to-day, tightly woven U.S.-Mexico relationship. Even those working in industries that would first be affected by a NAFTA breakdown seem cautiously optimistic: an executive coach who works exclusively with automakers in Mexico told me he sees his job stable for the next five years.

That said, voters don’t want a repeat of the weakness shown by current President Peña Nieto, who invited Trump the candidate to Mexico in 2016 and notably failed to flatly reject paying for a border wall. The candidates have taken note, and are doing what they can to project strength against Trump’s unfriendliness. The PAN coalition ran a spot of candidate Ricardo Anaya saying, in English, that paying for a wall is “insulting and unacceptable.” For AMLO, combative rhetoric comes naturally and he sometimes becomes mischievous; he recently posted a video throwing a special baseball pitch “with all respect, towards Donald Trump.”

PPFA: That’s interesting about AMLO. Though the lefty in the group, he seems the most Trumpish of the candidate. That is: he’s the biggest outsider, and he’s using that outsider status to mobilize the many anti-corruption voters who are sick of business as usual. Moreover, in Part I, you noted AMLO promised to “review bad contracts” while saying “NAFTA is bad for Mexico.” Also, like President Trump, he sometimes seems out-of-step with his own ideological wing (you noted illiberal leanings on gay marriage and abortion). Am I onto something here? Is he following the Trump blueprint for landing the presidency?

NP: In a superficial way, AMLO is the most Trump-like candidate, with their strongest similarity being nationalistic economic rhetoric. But the comparisons quickly don’t hold up. AMLO is a lifelong politician, in fact raised within the ranks of the PRI; he’s no outsider. He attempts to link himself historically with Mexico’s mid-century pro-worker nationalism, and he presents idealistic to-do lists like his “50 proposals for Mexico’s rebirth.” His blueprint is that of the old-school Latin American left. Media outlets might try to play up a narrative that Mexico has its own Trump, but don’t buy it.

PPFA: Even in your denial you confirm! “Pro-worker nationalism” = American First. “Mexico’s re-birth” = Make Mexico Great Again!

NP: For sure, AMLO is, as was Trump, a change candidate who would be probably be happy to return to a 1950s international trade scenario. But that has been AMLO the past 12 years, he’s sticking to his own script.

PPFA: Got it. While we’re talking about his approach, I’m interested in the campaign strategies of AMLO and the other candidates. Can you speak to that?

NP: Whirlwind travel to press the flesh and make those stump speeches. AMLO visited 10 cities and towns from April 5-8, while Anaya and Meade had similar schedules. They will invariably wear white guayabera shirts when visiting hot climates, the uniform of Mexican politicians being men of the people.

PPFA: Like Mitt Romney awkwardly wearing jeans.

NP: The visits to rural and indigenous towns often smack of paternalism, and “supporters” might be bussed in to events for a small fee. Vote-buying and other forms of clientelism, while not as rampant as when the PRI perfected it decades earlier, still exists.

AMLO’s recent message embracing his vilified status, “We’d be better off with… you-know-who,” has been so successful that I’ve heard several people use “you-know-who” with a wink when sharing their candidate of choice. Then, a reggaeton song appeared online about a well-off Mexican confessing her preference for AMLO to a priest — the Morena party denied making it, but few doubt its origins. Meanwhile, to show off his mexicanidad,Anaya strummed a guitar with a young indigenous huichol singer.

In the online campaign, Mexican Twitter is full of bots, utilized by all parties, to beef up trending topics or harass political opponents users. (Eighteen percent of Twitter content in early March was made by bots, a metrics firm estimated.) On Facebook, doctored, unfactual news is shared.

PPFA: I can’t imagine living in a country like that.

NP: Social media in Mexico, like in the U.S., can get ugly, but in a country where 26 journalists have been murdered the past ten years with almost 100 percent impunity, receiving death threats online is no joke.

PPFA: Which leads us to the drugs and violence. What can you say about Mexico’s narcotics issues and how the candidates are tackling it?

NP: Mexico’s war against drug cartels, officially waged by ex-President Felipe Calderón in 2006, has been a bloody, horrific policy failure. Sure, the most infamous drug lord El Chapo is currently awaiting trial in a small cell in Brooklyn, but the DEA-promoted kingpin strategy of going after drug bosses has only splintered the cartels. Armed cells of the main cartels, once their enforcers, have blossomed into 43 groups by 2014 and become independent, diversifying their portfolios into extortion of local business and government, kidnappings, human trafficking, and robbing oil pipelines. Meanwhile, insatiable demand from the U.S. has heroin flowing from the lush poppy fields of Guerrero more than ever, along with its powerful synthetic cousin, fentanyl, the substance killing users in the U.S..

PPFA: Yet another crossover issue with American politics.

NP: Right. Anyway, pardon my long-winded preamble, but I want to stress that any sentient observer knows a change in Mexico’s drug and security policy is needed. So the candidates are offering fresh new ideas, right?

Of course not. They are offering more of the same rhetoric, which in practice translates into sending military and federal police to hot conflict zones, an admission that local law enforcement is ineffective, co-opted, or both. (The PRI, with some PAN support, recently passed a controversial law that bestows law enforcement powers to the military.)

Unsurprisingly, AMLO is the only candidate proposing something else: opening a dialogue with the cartels and offering some type of amnesty for its members. He was generally excoriated for the amnesty proposal in the press and from some left-wing intellectuals. Still, AMLO will not touch the words “decriminalization” or “legalization,” which makes his proposals appear less rooted in real policy and more in fantasy-land.   

Polls show that Mexicans oppose marijuana legalization, though views are changing, down from 77 percent opposition in 2010 to 56 percent in 2017. Considering the electorate’s still-conservative outlook on drug use, along with Uncle Sam and his military aid money, I don’t see much-needed structural changes implemented in Mexico any time soon.

PPFA: How uplifting. I feel like we’ve focused a lot on Mexico’s problems. Is there anything more positive to note? I’ve read that the Mexican economy has improved in recent years, which has led to a decrease in emigration to the United States. Is that accurate? And would having two anti-NAFTA heads of state — our President Trump and potential Mexican President AMLO — likely reverse that trend?

NP: Yeah, Mexican politics and current events can be dour, and I want to mention that my outlook is generally shared among Mexicans and analysts, and it is not merely the ramblings of a cranky expat. So let’s find something positive: Tourism is booming in Mexico, with no signs of slowing down. A record 35 million foreigners came to Mexico in 2016, and they spent more money than ever. That’s quite a feat for a country that is often portrayed as overrun by murderous cartels, and it attests to the fact that, yeah, Mexico is awesome. The beaches, delicious food, archeological sites and colonial towns keep foreigners streaming in. It’s not only people signing on to all-inclusives in Cancun. Here in Mexico City, I’m amazed to see the number of young people coming for the art, gastronomy and general hipness, which was certainly not the case, say, 15 years ago. This is a trend any Mexican politician can keep going, as long as they keep the violence contained.

The Mexican economy has been extremely lackluster the past decade, only once hitting above 2 percent GDP growth and at times contracting. There are well-performing high-tech clusters in the automotive and aerospace industries, for example, but household income adjusted for inflation is actually dropping.

The decrease in Mexican migration to the U.S. started right before the Great Recession, and it hasn’t picked up. It’s most likely a combination of factors: less employment opportunities for young male workers in the U.S., particularly in construction, the high cost and danger of migrating due to border control and Mexican gangs, and even the sharp drop in Mexico’s fertility rate.

In short, Mexico’s economy has some brights spots, namely tourism and high-tech manufacturing hubs. If trade is cut back with NAFTA Version 2.0, it would probably hurt Mexico’s already mediocre economy, but the effect on migration is unclear.   

PPFA: This is why I have a Latin American Correspondent. Looking forward, how do you see post-election Mexico-U.S. relations being affected by this election? Can you predict likely scenarios depending on the winner?

NP: I have faith that Mexico and the U.S. will essentially always remain buddies and partners in crime.

PPFA: Provocative choice of words.

NP: Even if it’s AMLO on the phone bickering with a cranky Trump in January 2019, the economic, cultural and historical ties between us run too deep for catastrophe to occur.

The bilateral relationship at the highest levels of government, however, is already strange and off-kilter. The U.S. ambassador to Mexico, a seasoned Latin America veteran, sent in her resignation ostensibly because she could no longer work under the Trump administration. “Jared and Videgaray pretty much run Mexico policy,” said a U.S. official to a journalist recently, referring to Jared Kushner and Luis Videgaray, Peña Nieto’s right hand man and foreign minister. The two men are friends since meeting years ago in New York’s financial circles, and this friendship is quite possibly the only thing keeping NAFTA afloat.

So if the PRI doesn’t win, Kushner’s buddy Videgaray will be gone, and we can expect a more antagonistic relationship between the countries. I predict this will, at worse, lead to tariffs slapped onto various industries, maybe some agricultural trade threats, but there are too many vested interests for an all-out trade war and wall-building fiasco.

PPFA: That’s a relief! Your context calms me. Thank you! Let’s wrap it up with a prediction. I know we’re two-and-a-half months out, but care to read some tea leaves for us?

NP: I don’t think Jose Meade or Ricardo Anaya will be able to catch up to AMLO individually. My scenario A is that Mexico will get its first leftist president, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, and he will turn out to be a fairly centrist, mediocre leader.

Nevertheless, a common sentiment, especially among Mexico’s left, is that the powers-that-be in Mexico simply won’t allow AMLO to win. That gives us two more scenarios.

PPFA: I’m already giddy.

NP: Scenario B: In the next month, the PRI and PAN parties will see the writing on the wall and form an alliance, sticking with Anaya for president and guaranteeing a cast of PRI leaders in high positions (Meade as finance minister, perhaps). The PRI and PAN are ideologically similar, in the end, and if they form an alliance they will handily win.

Scenario C: Electoral fraud. Unfortunately, I have to include this, considering Mexico’s election history. If Meade or Anaya can get within 5 percent of AMLO, sleight-of-hand can be used to find the remaining votes.

For the sake of Mexico’s democracy, let’s hope for a clean win with Scenario A or B.  

PPFA: Speaking as someone who openly clamors for the most electoral drama, bring on Scenario B! Thanks so much for taking the time, Nathan. Will we hear from you again before July 1?

NP: Definitely expect to hear from me again, boasting, if my PAN-PRI alliance prediction comes true. And if there is a major scandal or turn of events, I’ll report it straightaway to Mexican Politics For America!

PPFA: Excellent. Until then, thanks for broadening our horizons.

See you next time, PPFA (and MPFA) readers!


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