The big race is on. As the primary season for the 2018 Mexican federal and state elections closes, burning questions, criticisms and doubts pervade the public sphere.
On the street, many Mexicans express rejection of or skepticism about the political parties and their candidates, with some wondering if the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) will commit fraud to stay in power — as it is widely held to have done in 1988, 2006 and 2012 — or sabotage an opposition victory during the long transition period from election day on July 1 to the presidential inaugural in December.
At stake are not only the Mexican presidency and congress, but also state and local offices in 30 of Mexico’s 32 states. More than 3,400 posts are up for grabs, according to the official National Electoral Institute (INE), the agency tasked with organizing the federal contest and assisting with state ones.
Especially in areas dominated by organized crime, the specter of violence haunts the process. That coupled with the power of “dark” money can chill opposition and manipulate the results.
Fanning fears were the murders between late November to early February of at least 17 current or former government officeholders and political activists in seven states, according to Mexican press accounts. Though hailing from different political parties, the victims all resided in regions where organized crime holds great sway.
Proceso magazine’s Arturo Garcia Rodriguez assessed the killings as a “grave precedent of what will continue happening during the electoral process.”
In violence-torn Guerrero state, El Sur reported that a mutilated body with an undisclosed “narco message” was dumped on Jan. 15 in front of a branch of the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD). On Feb. 2, two Guerrero PRD members were killed in an ambush while on their way to an important party meeting, media reported. A 31-year-old lawyer, Jose Jairo Garcia, who was an aspirant for a state legislative seat, was found murdered and dismembered on Sunday in the neighboring state of Puebla. In the state of Mexico outside the Mexican capital, a federal lawmaker running for a mayoral slot, Francisco Rojas San Roman, died Tuesday from gunshot wounds he suffered in a weekend gun attack.
Disruptions of a mayoral hopeful’s events reinforced suspicions of organized political sabotage. On multiple occasions in January, shadowy groups disrupted events for Claudia Sheinbaum, mayoral primary candidate for Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s National Regeneration Movement (Morena) party in Mexico City, injuring La Jornada reporter Angel Bolanos in one incident on Jan. 3.
In an unusual interview, two men initially identified as aggressors spoke out on national television, saying they were financially contracted but short-changed by Morena leaders, who called the accusation “absurd.” Sheinbaum had earlier blamed the violence on the rival PRD party. A former Mexico City official, Luis Ernesto Escalona, was subsequently legally charged with crimes connected to the Jan. 3 event.
Many analysts consider the Mexico City mayor’s seat the second or third most powerful political post in the nation.
Added to the targeting of politicians, rising violence against civil society activists and journalists is ringing alarm bells.
Mexico’s Cerezo Committe human rights organization released a recent report that tallied the murders of 48 activists and journalists nationwide during 2017. It was by far the worst year for such violence since the group began gathering that data in 2007.
And 2018 started off on a bad note, too. On Jan. 13, political journalist Carlos Dominguez was stabbed to death in front of family members at an intersection in the northern border city of Nuevo Laredo, Tamaulipas.
“Mexican authorities must swiftly investigate the murder of Carlos Domínguez Rodríguez, and bring all of those responsible to justice,” Alexandra Ellerbeck, North American program coordinator for the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, said in a statement.
“Until the Mexican government decides to change the pattern of impunity in the country, criminals will continue to get away with killing journalists,” Ellerbeck said.
In the southern state of Oaxaca, meanwhile, reporter Agustin Silva was reported disappeared on Jan. 22.
The big contenders
Three big political coalitions will vie for the presidency and congress. The PRI has again joined hands with the Mexican Green Party and New Alliance Party in a bid to retain power. Former budget and taxation secretary Jose Eduardo Meade is the presidential choice for the PRI’s coalition.
Cognizant of the party’s tarnished political status and the presence of independent candidates now permitted by election law, PRI leaders chose Meade, who is not a party member and has served in both PRI and opposition governments, in an effort to paint his candidacy as a “citizen” run.
A Yale graduate who turns 49 later this month, Meade represents the second wave of Mexican technocrats schooled in the Washington Consensus of free trade, austere social spending and U.S-style elections.
Andrés Manuel López Obrador, Morena party leader and presidential contender in 2006 and 2012, is making his third run for the nation’s top job, this time with the backing of the small Labor and Social Encounter parties in the “We Will Make History Together” coalition.
Historically identified with the left nationalist trend in Mexican politics, the López Obrador of 2018 has struck a far different tone than in previous races, pivoting to the center and enlisting the support of defectors from a host of political parties, a stunning roll of personalities from the nation’s elite and even one-time enemies like former National Action Party (PAN) leader Manuel Espino.
But the 64-year-old presidential contender’s alliance with Social Encounter, a grouping with conservative stands on sexuality issues, consternated some supporters like noted writer Elena Poniatowska.
Displaying his determination to take the Mexican presidency, López Obrador has named a future cabinet and appointed three heavy hitters to coordinate his campaign, including Marcelo Ebrard, former mayor of Mexico City, and Ricardo Monreal, ex-governor of Zacatecas.
A third coalition, uniting the conservative PAN with the onetime left PRD party and centrist Citizen Movement party, is fielding recent PAN chief Ricardo Anaya, who turns 39 this month, as its presidential standard bearer. Talk, however, is mounting that the Citizen Movement party, or at least a good portion of its base, will side with López Obrador as election day approaches. The party supported López Obrador in previous elections.
In Mexico, traditional notions of left, right and center are increasingly muddled. A politically turbulent playing field characterizes the fragmentation of Mexican politics, Jose Woldenberg, former head of the old national electoral institute, told journalist Guadalupe Irizar.
A defining feature of contemporary Mexican politics is “the loss of the centrality of ideologies and identities and the emergence of persons as the formula of identification,” Woldenberg was quoted as saying.
At press time, six independents were trying to get on the presidential ballot, a hefty goal considering that each candidate will have to present nearly 900,000 verified signatures of registered voters from multiple states this month.
The six included Jaime “El Bronco” Gonzalez, governor-with-leave of the northern border state of Nuevo Leon; Margarita Zavala, former PAN legislator and wife of ex-president Calderon; Armando Rios Piter, former PRD member and senator from Guerrero; Edgar Ulises Portillo, a Mexico City academic who is wooing the millennial vote; Maria “Marichuy” Martinez, an indigenous healer from Jalisco who serves as the spokesperson for the Zapatista-supported Indigenous Government Council; and journalist Pedro Ferriz.
Dozens of independents also launched signature-gathering campaigns for the congressional races. According to the INE, more than 7 million eligible Mexican voters submitted their names for independent nominating petitions by Feb. 1.
As February’s signature deadline approached, at least three of the six presidential hopefuls appeared poised to make the final cut — Gonzalez, Zavala and Rios.
Beginning last fall, the signature gathering process has been marred by controversy. Early on, supporters of Marichuy charged that technical problems were impeding the required electronic uploading of signatures to the INE. Ferriz denounced widespread trafficking of voter rolls. And the INE began detecting the use of phony or irregular documents submitted with signatures.
In addition to the small army of independent candidates, recent election law reforms have added new elements to the political scene, including a gender parity requirement for legislative candidacies and re-election possibilities of some offices such as mayor. For instance, the current mayors of Ciudad Juárez and Puerto Vallarta, independent Armando Cabada and the Citizen Movement’s Arturo Davalos, respectively, are favored to win second terms.
The media barrage begins
Mexican law strictly divides the elections into a primary stage that concludes in February and the general race commencing in March. Certain activities are allowed and others prohibited during the two phases.
Presumably, the primary is a competitive arena within the political parties for the selection of general election candidates. However, in the case of the big three multi-party coalitions, the presidential candidates were virtually decided with no serious internal opposition. Accordingly, López Obrador, Anaya and Meade spent the primary attacking each other or their rival parties instead of primary opponents who never materialized, arguably, in violation of the primary-general election distinctions.
So far, personalities and not issues have dominated the primaries. Flashy, sassy and catchy television and social media campaign ads rivet the public space, perhaps exemplified by the leaders of the PAN and PRD acting out a musical performance of “La Bamba” to prove they are part of the “same band” or the smash hit spot of Yuawi — a nine-year-old indigenous boy from Jalisco delivering a pro-Citizen Movement diddy in a culturally emblematic corn field, a place abandoned by millions of small farmers and their family members pressured off the land by NAFTA, but not mentioned as such in the political ad.
At an Iberoamerican University forum in Mexico City covered by Proceso, political media expert Alejandro Garnica criticized an “oversaturation” of political ads in Mexico, contending that the repetition of simple messages foments personality cults and audience fatigue.
If there was a “great enthusiasm” for the 2000 elections that carried then-opposition politician Vicente Fox to the presidency and a gripping “fear” in 2006, citizen indifference now shapes the popular mood, according to Garnica.
Leading up to the current election year, a Pew Research Center survey released last year found that only 17 percent of respondents trusted the national government and 42 percent gave a thumbs up to hypothetical military rule.
A Mexican Russiagate?
Early polls show López Obrador in the lead, though with only between a quarter or a third of the vote. In a rerun of the 2006 and 2012 races, the PRI clearly views the former Mexico City mayor as the opponent to be beaten and is already pulling out its heavy guns, attempting to portray him as a dangerous radical in the Venezuelan mold who will destroy Mexico.
January’s strange appearance of pro-López Obrador messages in the streets of Venezuela, authored by anonymous individuals who were suspected of being anti-López Obrador, was a harbinger of foreign attention on and possible interference in the 2018 Mexican elections.
On that note, López Obrador’s opponents began urging the INE to investigate the Morena leader’s alleged ties to Russia. The calls were fueled by a Frida Ghitis op-ed in the Washington Post that was partly based in remarks made last December by H.R. McMaster, President Trump’s national security advisor. Without offering details, McMaster declared that “initial signs” indicated Russian meddling in the upcoming Mexican elections.
Writing in Milenio, Mexican columnist Hugo Garcia treated Ghitis’ piece as if it were a hard, investigative revelation. He surmised that because Ghitis’ article appeared in the Washington Post, rather than on Fox News, the story merited serious attention.
López Obrador ridicules both the Venezuela and Russia connections he is alleged to maintain. Treating the Russia allegation with humor, he even posted a video introducing himself as an “Andres Manuelovich” who was out for “Moscow gold.” T-shirts bearing the name “Andres Manuelovich” were then even reported circulating in the country.
But a sagging López Obrador-Russia-Venezuela narrative had a burst of life blown into it in early February. At a Feb. 2 Mexico City press conference attended by Mexican and Canadian leaders, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson declared that Russian “fingerprints” were on elections worldwide and that Mexico should “pay attention.” Nonetheless, the Trump administration official offered no concrete evidence of Russian intervention in the Mexican electoral process.
Separately, and again without offering any hard evidence, Venezuelan opposition Congressman Rafael Ramirez Colín was quoted by Proceso on Feb. 3 claiming that his country’s president, Nicolas Maduro, was planning to finance López Obrador’s campaign, as part of a leftist political strategy aimed at creating an “axis of hunger” in Latin America.
López Obrador has repeatedly denied any connections to either Venezuela and Russia, blaming the stories on the political desperation of his adversaries.
In response to Tillerson’s Mexico City remarks, the early presidential frontrunner responded with measure, saying he did not think Tillerson would meddle in the Mexican elections.
“I don’t think he is going to do that. I don’t think he will act in an imprudent way,” López Obrador was quoted as saying in a news release from his press office. “We respect all the governments of the world and ask that they respect our principles of non-intervention and self-determination of the peoples.”
López Obrador later added that he had received a like-minded assurance from then U.S. Vice President Joe Biden in 2012.
“…I hope that another high (U.S.) functionary comes along later to make a similar declaration,” he said.
Tillerson’s statement came on same day as the release of a highly questioned U.S. House Intelligence Committee memo alleging FBI wrongdoing in U.S. Russiagate.
The secretary of state’s words were also delivered on the 170th anniversary of the signing of the U.S.-Mexico Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, an agreement reached in the wake of a U.S. military victory over Mexico that ceded much of modern-day New Mexico and the U.S. West to Washington. The anniversary was not lost on some south of the border.
“Symmetry has never existed on this border,” editorialized the Tijuana edition of La Jornada. “170 years have passed and immigration and security policies have not taken the life away from the intense activity of the binational community that’s arisen on the bordering communities.”
U.S.-Mexico relations, of course, are destined to be high on the political agenda of the new Mexican president and congress. It’s likely a new president will be elected by a relatively small plurality, perhaps as low as 25 or 30 percent. In such an outcome, a dealmaker will have to navigate the myriad political minefield. Based on this year’s developments so far, it appears the most adept broker and negotiator is López Obrador.
Talking like the statesman, López Obrador directed comments to President Trump, saying he would convince the occupant of the White House of the advantages of economic cooperation as opposed to a border wall or militarization.
He also had words of advice for Trump in the event the Republican president goes for re-election, suggesting Trump could win votes by helping the millions of U.S. poor and improving health and education systems in this country.
“(Trump) shouldn’t be talking poorly about our country and using the border wall as propaganda. It resolves nothing.” López Obrador said in comments posted by his press staff. “I hope to tell him all this at the right moment, in good order, and make him see reason.”
Kent Paterson is an independent journalist who covers issues in the U.S./Mexico border region.