Mexico's Midterm Elections: The Unanswered Questions

06/04/2015 03:48 pm ET | Updated Jun 05, 2016

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Image Source: Reporte Informativo

Mexico will be holding its mid-term elections on Sunday, June 7th, when all 500 seats in the Chamber of Deputies will be renewed and 17 out of Mexico's 31 states (plus the Federal District) will be voting for governors, state congresses, and municipal/borough leaders. These will be the first major elections held following the approval of the political-electoral reform that created a new electoral authority (the Instituto Nacional Electoral). More importantly, however, this will be the first time that voters will have the opportunity to express their frustration against a government that has been mired in an ongoing political crisis following the Ayotzinapa kidnappings in September 2014 and the corruption scandals that shortly followed. On one hand, the ruling PRI has seen its popularity slump heavily since last summer when it was riding high from its successful passing of the structural reform agenda. But on the other hand, the opposition has been dreadfully ineffective in capitalizing on the government's woes, and the disintegration of the left into two parties with roughly similar levels of support (the PRD and its new and more radical offshoot, Morena) suggest that a structural change in Mexico's political environment is underway.

How will the mid-terms shape Mexico's political outlook over the next three years? Here are the big questions that remain unanswered:

Will the PRI retain its majority?

The PRI won a majority in the Chamber of Deputies in 2012 with the slimmest of margins: 251 seats out of 500 thanks to its alliance with the PVEM and Nueva Alianza (PANAL). Those were different times: the PRI was riding the Peña Nieto wave that swept it into the presidency, the PVEM had not seen its reputation tarnished by electoral misbehavior, and the PANAL had fared surprisingly well during the two presidential debates thanks to its well-spoken candidate, Gabriel Quadri. According to the most recent national polls, the PRI has suffered a loss of more than 10 percentage points of voting preference since the Ayotzinapa tragedy which has not been compensated for by the rise in PVEM popularity (PANAL has languished in the low single digits). However, only 200 out of the 500 seats in the Chamber are voted on the basis of proportional representation, the rest are first-by-the-post and there is reason to believe that the PRI-PVEM-PANAL alliance will fare much better in the latter: in 2012, it obtained 59% of those seats, compared to just 37% of those under proportional representation. The alliance is currently polling in at around 40-45% of the national vote which should give the PRI some reasonable confidence that it can retain its majority.

The question now is, does this matter? Probably not much, since practically all the structural reforms and their byelaws were passed in the Chamber of Deputies with the backing of either the PAN or the PRD (or in a few cases like the education reform, by both). This was necessary for those reforms that included constitutional changes, since two-thirds of the Chamber is required rather than just a simple majority. Furthermore, the PRI-PVEM-PANAL lacks a majority in the Senate - which is not up for grabs this weekend - so some degree of negotiation with the opposition will be necessary. This will certainly be a much less collaborationist opposition (a Pacto por México II is out of the question) but some degree of pragmatism should nevertheless prevail.

How much ground will the PRD lose to Morena?

Morena, led by two-time former-PRD candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador, may be playing on its anti-establishment and anti-PRI rhetoric but it is pretty obvious which of the parties it truly has on its electoral gun-sights: the PRD and its main bastion, Mexico City. Morena candidates (most of which are former perredistas that have been successfully poached) could possibly take some of the capital's 16 boroughs on Sunday and the party's national support is hovering near the 10% mark, not significantly below that of the PRD which has suffered disproportionately from the Ayotzinapa fallout and its chaotic internal rivalries. Even Carlos Navarrete, the current PRD party leader, has privately admitted that the party is set to lose to Morena (or the PRI) as the most important political force in the capital by 2018.

Ironically, despite the disintegration of the left over the last year, it boasts the two most likely presidential candidates for 2018: Mexico City mayor Miguel Mancera (PRD) and, of course, López Obrador himself. Mancera may well be the only salvageable card in the PRD's hand given the party's recent hemorrhage of high profile figures to Morena but he is neither as progressive as his predecessor, the now-disgraced Marcelo Ebrard, nor does he have the popular appeal of López Obrador. If anything, many leftists see him as too close to the PRI to be a truly unifying figure. Which leaves López Obrador. Despite failing to win the presidency on two occasions, the Tabasco native has been undoubtedly Mexico's most resilient politician in recent decades, and is probably the only person capable of mustering a leftist coalition. How strong Morena arrives to the 2018 elections will partly be determined by how well it does on Sunday.

Is the INE a lame duck?

Outside the police, it's hard to imagine a case of a Mexican political institution falling so quickly from grace as the Instituto Nacional Electoral. A product of the 2013-14 political-electoral reform, was supposed to be a beefed up IFE (its predecessor), with powers not just over federal but also - when necessary - of state and local elections, as well as stronger auditing capabilities over public electoral resources. But less than a year after its creation in April 2014, it suffered an embarrassing walkout by its PAN- and PRD-appointed councilors due to perceived bias in favor of the PRI-PVEM. It would get worse: the PVEM subsequently intensified its systematic campaign of electoral campaign violations that the INE has proved completely unable to stop. To date, the PVEM has accumulated fines well in excess to all its annual public resources, resulting in an unprecedented campaign by various civil society groups to have its party registry withdrawn (an online petition gathered 140,000 signatures and was presented to the INE which promised to debate it but ended up passing it on to a different body). Although electoral fraud and campaign illegalities are the order of the day in Mexican elections, never in its short democratic history has one party so brazenly violated electoral rules, and made public its intention to do so to the last day.

Why has the PVEM done this? Because it works! It has plastered its propaganda on magazines, movie theaters, buses, and news websites long before the electoral campaign officially began. It has sent thousands of backpacks, t-shirts, pre-paid cards, and movie tickets to households across the country with complete disregard to the INE's orders to stop. And as a result, this minority party's popular support is now nearly at double digits for the first time in history. Wrongdoing pays off handsomely in Mexico when the institutions in charge of stopping it are completely prostrate in their attempts to do so and the PVEM (as well as its ally, the PRI) is all but aware of this. Gone are the days when Mexico's electoral authority was an example to the world and a model for democracies in transition: today's INE has proved to be an embarrassing case of how noxious political influence can completely undermine notionally autonomous institutions.

Will the teachers union boycott the elections?

Radical segments of the feared teachers union (the SNTE) have been up in arms since the landmark education reform was passed in 2013. One aspect of the reform, in particular, has been the main source of controversy: the establishment of teachers' evaluations which could lead to the possibility that a unionized teacher could lose their job if he/she does not measure up. The dissident teachers have mounted numerous protests since 2013, mostly in Mexico City as well as in Mexico's southern states, where some of the protests have turned violent. Their campaign has gathered momentum up in the wake of the Ayotzinapa kidnappings, where they have benefited from more generalized anti-government and anti-PRI sentiment. The situation peaked earlier this year when one of the dissident groups, known as the CNTE, called for an outright boycott of the mid-term elections. And by boycott, this doesn't simply mean that its members will not go out and vote on Sunday: it means an all-out effort to sabotage the entire electoral process through occupations of INE installations, stealing of ballot sheets, as well as roadblocks and protests near voting booths. In other words, chaos.

In response the government last week decided to single-handedly derail its most important structural reform: the education secretariat announced an "indefinite suspension" of teachers' evaluations, which was greeted by near universal condemnation by civil society groups. Businessman Claudio X. Gonzalez, president of Mexicanos Primero (an educational NGO) called the decision "absurd, irrational and full of opprobrium". The Instituto Nacional de Evaluación Educativa (INEE) - created as a result of the reform for the sole purpose of undertaking these evaluations - claimed the decision was anti-constitutional. But what has been the response of the CNTE? Well, clearly an indefinite suspension was not enough, and they have vowed to maintain their boycott until the suspension is "definitive". There are reasons to suspect that the government will indeed reverse its decision after the election, particularly if things turn messy in Oaxaca, Guerrero and Michoacán, the three states where the union is strongest and where the risk of electoral violence is greatest. But the willingness to sabotage the future of Mexican education for a few votes is telling of the twisted priorities of Mexico's political establishment.

Can independent candidates make a difference?

Hundreds of individual elections will take place on Sunday, but in the longer run, perhaps there is only one that really matters: Nuevo León. Mexico's second most economically important state is currently in a heated race for governor that has an independent, Jaime Rodríguez (better known as "El Bronco") with a slim lead over his PRI rival. One can be forgiven for noting parallels between El Bronco and former president Vicente Fox (2000-06): both have played on their appeal as political outsiders; both are former businessmen which have courted the corporate sector; both love to be photographed on horseback, a trait that will rarely lose you votes in Mexico's north. The irony is that Rodríguez is a former PRI member himself who has nevertheless vowed to purge the state of corruption - the outgoing governor, Rodrigo Medina, has a few scandals to his name which has forced the PRI candidate Ivonne Álvarez to disassociate herself with him and vow that she will be tough on corruption and impunity herself. Some of Monterrey's powerful industrial families, also suffering from the effects of drug-related crime and the deterioration of the rule of law under the PRI, could very well resist being swayed by Álvarez's promises, or caving in to government threats of withdrawing federal resources to the state in the event of a victory by Rodríguez. Mexico's north may be highly conservative in more ways than one, but El Bronco's meteoric rise is a clear signal that change is needed.

If he wins, it will be the most groundbreaking moment in Mexican democratic history since Fox's 2000 presidential victory: the first state governed by an independent. Rodríguez benefits from personal wealth and the backing of major businesses but in Jalisco's District X (which encompasses Guadalajara's affluent suburb of Zapopan), 25-year old Pedro Kumamoto has been running a very successful grassroots campaign as well. Only 15 independent candidates were authorized by the INE for these mid-terms but more are sure to follow as popular dissatisfaction against the major three parties leads voters to look for alternatives. Next week, an independent could be set to govern one of Mexico's most prized states. Don't be surprised if by 2018, an independent has a (hitherto unthinkable) shot at the presidency itself.

Follow the author @raguileramx.