Mexican elections

benito juarez polling station
A sign in Benito Juarez, Oaxaca, marks a polling station for the upcoming election.

I’m safely back in the States now (and over my acquired Mexican fever/stomach bug), but I’d be remiss if I closed that chapter of our trip without saying something about Mexican elections.

Mexicans went to the polls on June 7 for a highly contested midterm election to pick representatives for the lower house of the national two-chamber legislature, state governors (Mexico has 31 states and the Federal District, rather like our D.C.) and a variety of other local offices.

I’ve been reading about Mexico-U.S. relations for years, wrote a thesis about migration through the Arizona desert, spent three weeks talking to migrants for my work on the border and have been translating Mexican news for two years, so I’d like to think I’m more than a casual observer of Mexico. And with all that, I am just barely starting to understand enough about Mexican politics to ask a few intelligent questions of Mexicans that may someday help me formulate actual opinions on this stuff.

That is to say, Mexico is infinitely complicated and multilayered, so anything I say is only one perspective and likely incomplete. As always, I highly recommend the Mexico Voices blog for English readers who want to read news and commentary from a number of Mexican journalists explaining the election results.

Calls for boycott, general unrest

The weeks leading up to the election seemed tense to me, with many groups calling for an electoral boycott. Graffiti to that effect was quite common on the streets of Oaxaca.

electoral boycott
“Everyone makes promises, no one fulfills them. Vote for no one!” A common piece of electoral graffiti on the street of Oaxaca.

Mexicans are very, very good at protesting, but my sense was that this election had drawn more controversy than previous ones. (I could be wrong about this.) Some of that is due to continued protests over the 43 Azotzinapa student teachers who were taken into custody last September in Iguala, Guerrero, then turned over to the criminal gang Guerreros Unidos to be murdered.

The mayor of Iguala was implicated in their disappearance, and the whole thing has led to ongoing protests and a scandal for the PRD (Democratic Revolution Party), Mexico’s third largest political party. The mayor was a PRD member and the PRD is the leftmost of Mexico’s major political parties.

Oaxaca is one of several states where teachers have also been aggressively protesting president Enrique Peña Nieto’s education reform bill. Among other things, it requires a teacher evaluation, which seems to be the focus of much of the protesting I saw.

It’s worth noting that it’s very, very common for teachers and students to protest throughout Mexico and especially in Oaxaca, and these protests have been going on for months. Two days after Spencer and I left the state, the Oaxacan teachers union took over the airport and a gasoline refinery, causing a statewide fuel shortage and briefly halting all air traffic.

The Mexican army was sent in to break up the protests, and was also deployed in Oaxaca and several other states to stop protestors from destroying ballot boxes. There’s some (English language) video of this happening in Oaxaca here.

Mexican political parties and the current landscape

It’s probably worth a brief summary of major Mexican political parties for some context. Mexico became independent from Spain in 1810 and fought a revolution from 1910-1920ish against the dictatorship of Porfirio Diaz. Modern Mexico’s political parties were started after that revolution.

The Institutional Revolution Party (PRI) has dominated Mexican politics practically since the revolution. It was founded in 1929 and held the presidency uninterrupted from 1946-2000, when Vicente Fox was elected. Mexican presidents and most other political offices are limited to a single six-year term. It’s also illegal for someone to run for political office while holding another office, so it’s not uncommon for politicians to resign midterm so they can run for their next position.

The PRI is politically centrist compared to Mexico’s two other major parties, the PAN (National Action Party) and the PRD. The PAN is the most conservative, and held the presidency from 2000-2012, first through Vicente Fox, then Felipe Calderón. Those presidencies were characterized by a much more aggressive crackdown on drug trafficking (bolstered by U.S. support), which many Mexicans I’ve talked to blame for the rise in violence within Mexico.

The PRI took the presidency back in 2012 with the election of Enrique Peña Nieto. He was regarded with high hopes by the neoliberal international community (The Economist was a big fan, for instance) and was able to pass some trade liberalization measures and his education reform bill. But his approval rating now is very low within Mexico, and the disappeared student teachers are a common refrain among opinion columnists criticizing the administration, as well as impunity for criminals, general failures of the justice and larger political system, and another scandal where a government contractor helped his wife buy a house on favorable terms.

Reports of drug cartel violence seem to have decreased during his time in office, but I’ve heard some people say that’s indicative of a savvy PR campaign more than it is actual levels of violence. I’m not familiar with the nuances of his signature legislation, but I think it’s fair to say that he’s not well liked among average Mexicans now, and there’s a general feeling of both unrest and weariness with his administration and the political system as a whole (not unlike in the U.S. in many ways).

The 2015 elections

With so much frustration and seeming disenchantment, voter turnout was still 47 percent last Sunday – higher than in the 2009 Mexican midterms, if memory serves, though I can’t find the source for that now. About 1.8 million ballots of the 36.3 million cast were left blank or were invalid.

Some notable results:

  • The governorship of Nuevo Leon went to an independent candidate, Jaime Heliodoro Rodríguez Calderón, though he’s a 30 year veteran of the PRI
  • Other governorship results are here; if I’m reading correctly, the PRI didn’t gain any seats, though a few states changed hands
  • Morena, a new progressive party, picked up 40 seats in the national legislature

As for what this will all mean for Mexico – that’s beyond my pay grade and expertise (and my cynical friends would say it means nothing, anyway). But I’ll certainly be keeping an eye out.