On Sunday, June 5th, around 37 million people voted to elect new governors for 12 of Mexico’s states and new constituency and municipal leaders within Baja California and Mexico City, respectively. Although polls largely favored wins for the traditionally dominant PRI (Institutional Revolutionary Party) in most states, it lost to the conservative PAN (National Action Party) in seven states and was defeated in Veracruz, Quintana Roo, and Tamaulipas for the first time in its history. The PAN formed a coalition with the left-of-center PRD (Party of the Democratic Revolution) in order to secure victory in Veracruz, Quintana Roo, and Durango. The results hint at three key trends:
1) The PRI is losing its state-level dominance
President Pena Nieto’s party has no doubt suffered a blow from this unexpected defeat. The various allegations of corruption against his administration, coupled with sluggish economic growth and rising levels of violence, have given the opposition parties an electoral boost.
The PRI’s losses in Veracruz and Oaxaca especially underline popular discontent against the ruling party. Veracruz’s economy has grown by only 1.4% over the past five years; the second lowest growth rate among Mexican states. Under Peña Nieto’s government, poverty levels in Veracruz have increased from 45.8% to 53.9%. Informal market activity is a troubling 62.2% of commercial activity. Many have accused the state government of corruption, including the disappearance of 32 million euros from the state’s books between 2012 and 2013. Oaxaca paints a similar picture: both informality and poverty rates are a staggering 74%.
Nationwide, the PAN and PRD’s success is a direct product of popular demands for better economic conditions. In addition, MORENA (the National Regeneration Movement) led by the enigmatic Andrés Manuel López Obrador, known as AMLO, also saw some victories in the elections for the Mexico City constituency and did well elsewhere across the country.
In the most general terms, this trend may be good news for Mexican democracy, as PRI hegemony ebbs and voters demand new alternatives from their state governments, the political space may be expanding.
Mexican 2016 Regional Elections: PRI’s loss of dominance
2) The PAN and the PRD are still willing to work together
Despite their own electoral weaknesses, the PAN and the PRD were the major beneficiaries of the PRI’s troubles. That the PAN and the PRD have joined forces to overcome the PRI in three states—a practice that dates to the 1990s—might indicate that both parties are still willing to work together in installing a non-PRI government in 2018. It is likely that each party will have its own presidential candidate for the upcoming elections, but they may both focus their efforts on defeating the PRI when the elections season begins. Despite the contrast between the PAN’s conservative, business-friendly approach and the PRD’s left-leaning ideology, both parties are staunchly opposed to the PRI government and the possibility of another one.
This political pluralism may indicate a healthy increase in diversity of opinion in Mexican politics. However, it comes with a risk of political fragmentation. After all, the PAN and the PRD’s ideological differences could create ruptures in the anti-PRI vote when it comes to choosing a president in two years’ time. Additionally, the PRI’s victory in its previously-held states of Hidalgo, Tlaxcala, and Zacatecas might indicate further splits in the electorate’s political preferences as the party is ousted in some parts of the country but consolidates support elsewhere.
3) The 2018 presidential elections are wide open
The PRI’s regional defeats hint that party is far from a strong favorite to retain the presidency in 2018. If these elections are any indication, the PAN will have the advantage, although outcomes will be highly dependent on events over the next two years as well as each party’s nominee.
Peña Nieto’s party has several options for a candidate to succeed him, including the Secretary of Interior, Osorio Chong. The PAN has yet to pick a candidate, and hopefuls Ricardo Anaya (the president of the party), Margarita Zavala (former president Calderon’s wife), and Rafael Morena (the governor of Puebla) will likely compete for the position. If the party can rally together behind a single candidate, it may be able to capitalize on its current momentum
Meanwhile, López Obrador—the PRD’s candidate in the 2006 and 2012 elections—has said that he will challenge the PRI once again in 2018 as the candidate of the MORENA party, which he founded in 2014. MORENA will have to fight the PRD, likely represented by Miguel Angel Mancera Espinosa, Mexico City’s Mayor, for support from the left. At present, MORENA too seems to have momentum, leaving the PRD as perhaps the least well-positioned of the major parties.
Out of the likely candidates, there doesn’t appear to be a clear favorite, in the absence of a consolidated opposition. President Peña Nieto seemed cognizant of this, speaking with a conciliatory tone after Sunday’s defeat and calling on Mexico to “leave [all] polarization, conflict, and bitterness behind.” His party can’t afford a full confrontation against the PAN and the PRD, especially after this defeat.
Moreover, even though the several allegations of corruption against the PRI have clearly eroded the party’s support, it still has a chance to reverse course and rebuild support on the issue before 2018. Congress, which is controlled by the party, is currently holding an extraordinary session between June 13th and June 17th. As Shannon O’Neil argues, it has “an opportunity to regroup, and even get out ahead on this issue.” Congress has finally passed a General Law of the National Anticorruption System, after it was stuck in political limbo for months as the PRI dithered. The legislation improves coordination between government agencies and mandates financial transparency.
As long as the PRI avoids further scandals, there’s plenty of room to recover. The opposition’s recent victories may provide them with some inspiration for 2018, but the governing party remains the dominant political force in the country, and will not go down without a fight.
Still though, 2018 is two years away—a lifetime in politics. The next presidential election in Mexico will be determined as much by circumstances and luck as by voter preferences among parties. With a divided field, the election may be shaped by the candidates themselves. At the same time, the economy’s performance over the next two years, trends in oil prices, improvements or deterioration in the security situation, and the possibility of future corruption scandals will have broad impacts on the race. The 2018 election may also be influenced by the outcome of this year’s campaign in the United States, especially should Barack Obama’s successor be openly antagonistic towards Mexico.