Monday, August 26, 2013

Reading Mexico's Political Tea Leaves

Reading Mexico's Political Tea Leaves
By Dwight Dyer and Gavin Strong 8/06/2013

MEXICO CITY - Though largely off the radar north of the Rio Grande, last month's local elections in Mexico provide an opportunity to read the political tea leaves south of the border. As the first elections in President Enrique Peña Nieto's term, the local polls in thirteen states and the gubernatorial contest in Baja California provide a partial picture of the electorate's view of Peña Nieto's first seven months in office.

The results were a mild rebuke of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which won approximately 55% of the posts contested, but suffered a net loss of 42 mayoralties-leaving a total of five million fewer citizens under PRI governments. However, the party is ahead in ten state assemblies, which will ease the eventual approval of constitutional changes considered in the upcoming energy reform. The results also highlighted the weakness of the major opposition parties following the 2012 presidential elections, given that they could only score important victories by running in coalition.

Perhaps the strongest reading on public sentiment is the impression on the ground that citizens are disillusioned with the voting process; a fact highlighted by an average abstention rate of 60%. The voter apathy can be largely explained by three factors. First, parties indulged in illegal campaign practices, like vote-buying and gross overspending, with no apparent consequences. Second, ad hoc coalitions between ideologically opposed parties multiplied, giving the impression that politicians are only interested in the perks of office. Third, many governors persisted in nonchalant bullying of electoral authorities to have them turn a blind eye on diversion of public funds to benefit their coteries.

Violence may have been an additional factor depressing turnout in some regions. Political violence-perpetrated in part by organized crime groups-reached levels unseen in Mexico in a quarter century. While reports of violent crime targeting voters on election day were scant, two mayoral candidates were murdered in the run up to the election, and numerous others received threats.

Notwithstanding the PRI's less than stellar performance, the results may actually have helped the prospects for President Peña Nieto's reform agenda. The leaders of the opposition PAN and the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), key members of the cross-party negotiation table known as the Pact for Mexico, had threatened to abandon the Pact if the government condoned governors' outright violations of fair game. Their warnings about PRI governors diverting public funds to campaigns turned moot when their own parties' governors behaved in kind. Nevertheless, they will be able to rein in internal critics and challengers and return to negotiations with Peña Nieto's government with a strengthened mandate. Their strategy will very likely be to demand political reform in order to tie governors' hands and remove the single-term limit on elected office, in exchange for their support to open the oil sector to private investment. President Peña Nieto's reputation as a modernizing statesman would suffer if he refused to accept the deal.

Dwight Dyer is a senior analyst and Gavin Strong is an analyst for Control Risks, a global risk consultancy. To receive regular updates on developments in Mexico, e-mail or visit

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