The PRI Strikes Back

To no one’s great surprise, Mexico’s once-and-future ruling party (or so it seems), the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), scored major victories in four state elections this Sunday. Mexico State has been governed by the PRI (or its direct ancestors) for over 80 years and that was not expected to change after Sunday’s election. The magnitude of the party’s victory, however, was surprising, impressive and a worrisome sign of its return to hegemony.

Fred Rosen 7/5/2011

177Eruviel Ávila (Agencia MVT)To no one’s great surprise, Mexico’s once-and-future ruling party (or so it seems), the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), scored major victories in four state elections this Sunday. The PRI won governorships in three states (México State, Coahuila and Nayarit), and a majority of municipal posts in Hidalgo. The PRI had seemed out for the count following its third place finish in the 2006 presidential election, but it has bounced back strongly, mobilizing (or purchasing) the faithful, using strategic force when necessary (especially in the southern states), attracting young voters with effective and massive campaigning, and showing that it knows how to make use of the levers of power when in office. Sunday’s results confirmed its comeback.

The party’s most closely watched victory came in Mexico State, the nation’s most populous political entity—much of it lying just outside Mexico City, within the city’s metropolitan area—with a population of about 15 million. Mexico State has been governed by the PRI (or its direct ancestors) for over 80 years and that was not expected to change after Sunday’s election. The magnitude of the party’s victory, however, was surprising, impressive and a worrisome sign of its return to hegemony. In a three-way race, the PRI candidate for governor, Eruviel ávila, captured 62% of the vote, nearly three times the 21% received by his nearest challenger, Alejandro Encinas of the left-of-center Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), and some five times greater than the 12% for Luis Felipe Bravo Mena, the candidate of the conservative National Action Party (PAN).

The size of the PRI’s triumph was a major victory for outgoing Mexico State governor Enrique Peña Nieto, who wants to be the party’s candidate in next year’s presidential election. Peña Nieto put the full force of the state government (state funds and strategic assistance programs) behind the ávila’s candidacy, prompting charges from both opposition parties that he had transformed the electoral process into an old-time “state election.” Indeed, the state PRI, in one form or another, appears to have spent more than the legal limit of 203 million pesos (about US$17 million) on the campaign—a Mexican historical record.

But no matter how militants of the losing parties try to gloss the results as simply the fruits of old-time PRI chicanery, both the PAN and the PRD displayed their own serious (and very different) weaknesses. The PAN’s fall from grace has been long foretold. Under President Felipe Calderon, it has not been able to effectively govern, and has presided over the rise of physical and economic insecurity and—in many areas of the country—the loss of state power to organized crime. It is no surprise that it is losing popular support.

But the results also represent a significant defeat for the country’s left(s), which is/are plagued with factionalism and personal animosities. Notwithstanding the emergence of the corrupt and ruthless “old PRI,” the PRD is losing ground because the fierce personal (and to a lesser extent ideological) infighting within the party (and within the broader left alliance that includes two smaller parties) have clearly alienated a significant part of the voting public—especially the young. (A sidebar to the story of the Mexico State election was the enormous rate of abstention, estimated to be about 60%.)

The PRD and the PAN had considered running a joint campaign in the state, supporting a single candidate, and the idea received support in a popular consultation of the two party’s supporters. The proposal, however was strongly opposed by former (and future?) PRD presidential candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador, When Lopez Obrador threatened to support a third candidate if the coalition proposal went through, the PRD pulled out of the proposed arrangement. While the party coalesced around the candidacy of Alejandro Encinas, López Obrador’s opponents within the party (who are legion) are now beginning to blame him for preventing the emergence of a viable coalition candidate who might have slowed the PRI juggernaut.

The PRD, arose in the late 1980s around two broad themes: the democratization of Mexico’s political system and the democratization of Mexico’s social relations. However imperfectly the PRD has represented the goals of political and social democracy, it has attracted a large following in pursuit of these goals.

The first goal called for the creation of a new set of democratic political institutions (a nonpartisan, independent electoral commission, for example), while the second called for the recreation of a social compact—the acknowledgement of a set of reciprocal obligations—between the state and the citizenry, especially the very poorest of Mexico’s citizens.

The first goal sought (and still seeks) to break the stranglehold on political power of the (apparently) still-hegemonic PRI, while the second sought (and still seeks) to break the stranglehold on economic power of national and global elites. In its pursuit of the first goal, the PRD has often found itself in an alliance of convenience with the conservative PAN. Many state and local governments are (or recently have been) in the hands of such coalitions. In its pursuit of the second, the PRD and the business-oriented PAN have become political enemies. When the PAN and PRD have campaigned and/or governed jointly, the PRD’s second goal— social democracy—has largely been swept aside, but the first goal—electoral democracy—has been strengthened.

As next July’s presidential election approaches, all these themes will be played out in ways that are just beginning to reveal themselves.

 

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