The embattled Mexican President, Enrique Peña Nieto, has emerged surprisingly unscathed from the June 7 elections for the Chamber of Deputies and state legislatures, governors and mayors. Though this will let him drive through with more privatisations halfway through his term, there are clear signs that the bi-party system in Mexico is fraying at the edges.
The elections were marked by widespread apathy, localised violence and the assassination of several candidates in its build up. Less than half the electorate bothered to turn up, though this was higher than in any elections since 1997, and about 5% invalid votes were cast in response to an informal protest call. More than a fifth of the voters were not aware that elections were being held and 27% did not know the date.
There were pockets of intense violence on election day in the southern states of Oaxaca and Guerrero, with a high incidence of poverty and large indigenous populations, where anger runs high over the mistreatment of schoolteachers and the disappearance of 43 students respectively.
The Party of Institutional Revolution (PRI), Peña Nieto’s party, retains its position as the dominant political player, having ruled Mexico uninterrupted for 70 years till 2000 when it lost to the Centre-Right National Action Party (PAN). The PRI’s vote share went down from 36% in 2012 to roughly 30% this election, but it will have a legislative majority with the help of its ally, the Ecologist Green Party of Mexico (PVEM).
Appearances are deceptive in Mexico but none more than PVEM, which was fined by the election authorities for electoral malpractices. Curiously for a Green party, it wants to bring back the death penalty and its leader was filmed in 2004 accepting a bribe to provide a construction permit in an environmentally sensitive region.
The Democratic Revolution Party (PRD), once the dominant party of the Left, lost heavily to the National Regeneration Movement (Morena) of Andrez Manuel Lopez Obrador, better known as AMLO, who lost the 2000 elections as a PRD candidate in murky circumstances and then quit to fashion a broad Leftist alliance.
Morena emerged as the fourth largest party, its biggest gain being in Mexico City, which is a federal district, where it has displaced the PRD’s traditional hegemony. But it is itself in danger of being displaced by a new star from the northern economic powerhouse state of Nuevo Leon, Jaime Rodriguez, known as El Bronco for his unorthodox campaign style and colourful ways. Bronco, whom the drug cartels have tried to kill thrice, often campaigned atop his horse called Tornado, and has said his victory is the start of a “democratic revolution” in Mexico.
Bronco is the first independent state governor in the country’s history. A long-standing PRI man, he resigned from the party some time ago and gained popularity for running a clean municipality. Given the widespread disillusionment with the political system and the existing parties, Bronco could emerge as a lightning rod for disaffected Mexicans.
Mexico’s second largest city, Guadalajara, went to an independent candidate while a former member of the national football team, Cuauhtemoc Blanco, will be the mayor of another big city, Cuernavaca.
That the traditional parties still prevail despite the persistent scandals is perhaps explained by the national mood of resignation and helplessness as also the existing networks of patronage that have deep roots. The drug cartels that virtually control large swathes of the territory also bring out votes for the traditional parties. Two powerful television companies, Televisa and Aztec TV, are partisan political players, which contributed to Peña Nieto’s presidential victory and still influence voting intentions.
Mexico’s slow burning political fuse is connected to three explosive charges: highly unequal economic growth, powerful drug cartels and decadent state institutions. The dip in oil prices has made the country even more dependent on remittances from the United States, tourism and the billions of narco-dollars swishing around in the economy.
The population suffers from relatively high levels of malnutrition and poverty for a country that otherwise boasts of a trillion-dollar economy. There are large, and often violent, social protests on issues ranging from fair wages to police brutality. The war on drugs has splintered the cartels but has also created smaller gangs that are harder to monitor and with easy access to powerful weapons that are smuggled in from the US. Drug money has corrupted political parties, local and central police forces and penetrated much of the state apparatus.
Peña Nieto’s predecessor, Felipe Calderon, brought the military out on the streets as part of the “war against drugs” but had little to show other than high civilian casualties and brutalisation of the institution itself. The killing of 43 trainee teachers of Ayotzinapa brought to light the unsavoury links that exist between local mayors, regional strongmen, the police and the military.
The elections have confirmed that, despite the growing discontent, the Mexican Left still lacks a unifying figure or an organisational network that can counteract the influence of the larger parties.