In 2012, three presidential elections – in Mexico, Venezuela, and the United States -- could alter the political map and relations in the Americas. The economy and – in Mexico and Venezuela, security – are decisive, as are the quality of the candidates and campaigns. There could well be surprises.
Mexico could be the biggest surprise. Most experts believe that the PRI will come back to power, after a dozen years of PAN rule. The former governor of the state of Mexico, Enrique Pena Nieto, has a strong lead in the polls for the July 1st vote. But the likely PAN candidate, former education minister Josefina Vasquez Mota, and the leftist PRD’s chosen candidate, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, could make the contest competitive.
Security is the main issue. More than 45,000 Mexicans have been killed as a result of drug-fueled violence since Felipe Calderon came to office in 2006. The Mexican public is understandably frustrated. Pena Nieto’s proposals do not differ greatly from Calderon’s policies, but he pledges to be more effective in the battle against cartels.
Pena Nieto has appeal, but he will face a lot of media scrutiny. Mistakes in the campaign could be costly. Vasquez Mota is a serious option, with administrative experience. She could benefit if the economy or security improves before July. Although Lopez Obrador upset many Mexicans when he refused to accept the results of the 2006 election, he could get a boost if the social agenda becomes the campaign’s focus.
Just three months later, on October 7, Hugo Chavez is expected to face his fourth challenger since his rule began in 1999. His rival will be determined in a February primary. Polls show that Miranda governor Henrique Capriles is favored. Although the opposition is more united than it has recently been, Chavez has the edge, assuming his health allows him to campaign effectively.
Of course, Venezuela does not have a level playing field. Chavez controls institutions like the electoral council and courts. He also has a lot of money to spend. Massive government handouts should be expected to insure support.
But Chavez is also more vulnerable than he has been before. He will need to show some progress on the economy and security. Venezuela's murder rate is four times greater than Mexico's, and the highest in South America. A lot can happen between now and the elections. True, the opposition has shown greater political maturity, but Chavez is intent on remaining in power.
In the United States, Barack Obama is seeking his second, and last, four-year term. (Mexico and Venezuela have six-year terms; the former has no reelection, and the latter, indefinite reelection.) Obama, whose approval level is around 45 percent, is vulnerable. He gets high marks on foreign policy, but the economy has been anemic. Though it dropped last month, unemployment is stubbornly high.
Obama will do his best to frame the election as a choice -- not a referendum on his record. Although the Republican primary contest has been odd, full of unexpected twists and turns, it now seems like former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney will challenge Obama on November 6, a month after the Venezuelan election.
Polls show that, in a race against Romney today, Obama enjoys a clear advantage. But it is important to follow the unemployment rate, and see what the trend is next September when voters make up their minds.