Thursday, July 1, 2010


Today, Sunday, July 4, Mexico holds elections for a number of important governorships and mayoralties, as well as other local positions. More than perhaps any election since the 1950s, these have been marred by gruesome violence against candidates and supporters of all parties. That many of these events--the assassination of PRI gubernatorial candidate Rodolfo Torres Cantu in Tamaulipas, the dumping of a headless body outside the house of a candidate for the mayorality of Ciudad Juarez--are directly tied to drug gangs has again raised realistic fears that neither the elections, nor the governments they yield, will be insulated from the persuasive power of narco-money and narco-violence. Four years after President Felipe Calderon initiated his ill-advised and poorly conceived attempt to defeat the drug gangs, the chickens have come home.

That these elections are likely to result in a sweeping victory for the PRI speaks to two major aspects of Mexican political life. First, there is widespread disenchantment after 10 years of PAN government, the product of ultimately ineffectual domestic economic policies, the failure to secure immigration reform in the U.S., and frustration with the hollow promises of electoral democracy underscored by a vitiated 2006 presidential election. Moreover, both the PAN and the left-wing opposition PRD, are political parties in disarray, riven by infighting, lacking charismatic leadership, and unable to build local bases of support on ideological grounds. Both the PAN and the PRD have always been more than willing to welcome locally powerful defectors regardless of beliefs, and in 2010 these two ideologically opposed parties took the precipitous step of forming anti-PRI electoral alliances in many states. Mexican politics has always been, at root, about local power cultivated through clientelism and interest representation, but the PAN-PRD union belies claims about the advance of Mexican democracy. The popular disenchantment that resulted has had the effect of driving voters back to the PRI--"at least they knew how to govern"--or driving them away from politics entirely.

Large-scale depoliticization only favors the PRI, marking the second major aspect revealed in these elections: very little has changed. Intimidation of candidates and supporters in rural areas and the use of political machines to mobilize and control voters were the hallmarks of the PRI's 71 year rule and there is little evidence that these practices are in any way diminished. If anything, they have become more necessary for all three parties. In other words, the democratization of political life has meant the democratization of political tactics. This is not to exculpate the PRI's henchmen, who, given that party's sweeping control of most of the country, engage in far more chicanery than operative for the PRD or PAN.

A massive PRI victory today, especially if it retains control of Puebla and Oaxaca where the outgoing governors have been nationally repudiated, will suggest that the party will capture the presidency in 2012. That the prospect of a PRI president does not evoke the sense of near-revulsion and popular rejection that it did in 2006, indicates both the failure of opposition government and the persistence of political practices on grassroots level. Although there is little to suggest, however, that the PRI could provide more effective leadership than their PAN predecessors, there is equally little reason to believe that the new generation of PRI leaders would prove more disastrous than the governments of Fox and Calderon.