Could Mexico’s election change everything?
It's being called the ‘most violent’ election campaign in Mexico's history. One hundred and thirteen candidates and politicians have so far been murdered, up to mid-June. Narcos have set fire to vans. Local candidates are being shot as they take photos with supporters and while speaking at public events.
Some 29,168 people were murdered in Mexico last year, according to official figures, and the current government of Enrique Pena Nieto ‘may be one of the most corrupt in the country's history,’ as noted by journalists and academics. Religious figures have gone so far as to describe the government as a ‘lucrative corporation … that benefits just a few people.’
These views echo how many Mexicans have perceived the country for a long time: a place where politicians don't even pretend to listen to the people or govern for them. A country where politicians are usually too busy making deals with big businesses, money laundering, and stealing public funds. Surveys support these views too, finding that Mexicans refrain from voting primarily because they are dissatisfied with all the electoral parties, they distrust the electoral system, and don't see voting as getting anywhere. Only a third of the youth under 30 vote, as they feel it does little to pressure politicians.
Perhaps expectedly then, Mexico is one of the countries in the Americas with the lowest levels of faith in democracy. LatinBarometro 2017 reported that just 2 per cent of Mexicans believe there is full democracy in their country, 90 per cent think their country is run by powerful groups who only look out for themselves, 9 per cent trust political parties, and 22 per cent trust the Congress of the Union (Mexico's parliament).
With such distrust, the world's longest working hours, profound poverty, and a strong US influence, it's no wonder Mexicans struggle to relate to more democratic and progressive governments to their south, and that they are wrought with apathy and cynicism to the possibility of a progressive – non Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) / National Action Party (PAN) – president for the first time in nearly a century.
Polls show the left wing Andrés Manuel López Obrador, known as AMLO, 20 points ahead of Ricardo Anaya of the conservative PAN party. With this lead Gabriela Hernandez, an activist for migrant rights and the coordinator of a migrant and refugee shelter in Mexico City, where AMLO was head of government, thinks it’s worth voting and that ‘more people this time around are open to voting.’
‘It's worth wagering that AMLO could improve the situation for migrants and many others,’ she said. But she believes ‘more in fraud than in the poll results’ and isn't confident that conservative forces, including big business and the US, would allow AMLO to win. She also noted that many plans of AMLO's party, Morena, are vague. ‘They haven't gone into any details yet, they don't know what they are going to do,’ she said.
Dr Carlos Figueroa Ibarra, Morena's National Secretary for Human Rights, admits that apathy towards political parties has been one of Morena's biggest challenges. ‘We have to convince people that Morena is different. More than trusting the party, we need them to trust in AMLO as a moral leader who will take us forward,’ he said.
‘If we win the elections, the idea is to not ruin the hopes that Mexicans have in us. That is the big challenge. We can't assume that things will automatically be okay. We will have to work together and uphold our values,’ he added, alluding to the three key values Morena has declared: ‘don't lie, don't steal, don't betray the people.’ Morena also has a list of 10 principles, including that politics isn't just for politicians, change should be peaceful, that Morena should be an open and plural space, and learning from experiences and struggle is valued.
Over 3,400 positions up for grabs
On 1 July, 88 million registered Mexicans will be able to vote for a new president to serve a six-year term, as well as for 128 members of the senate, 500 deputies of the lower house, and for governors, mayors, and legislators in 30 of the 32 states (including the Federal District).
Senators are elected for six year periods, while deputies are elected for three years. The parliament also consists of an interesting combination of direct and proportional representation, with 300 members of the lower house elected by relative majority in single-member districts, and 200 through a system of party lists. The president, who also becomes the chief of state and the army, is elected directly, and can never be re-elected. They swear in a full five months after election day, on 1 December.
Some of the dodgiest election campaigning
Like the major parties, the overall electoral campaigning environment doesn't inspire people's trust either. In Itzapalapa, for example, one of the most crowded and marginalized areas of the giant Mexico City, residents denounced in mid-June that in light of water scarcity, water was being supplied on the condition that people show their voting credentials and promised to vote for the local PAN candidate. Authorities have allegedly been leaving 10,000 litre tanks in each street, with a person from each street appointed by PAN candidate Karen Yanez Cedillo to distribute the water.
Meanwhile, along with the murders of candidates, there have been 382 registered political attacks such as threats and intimidation, and 14 kidnappings of family members of politicians or candidates. Most of this violence has to do with narcos and criminal gangs pressuring candidates to align with them as they try to maintain control of different regions.
‘The electoral campaign has been two dirty wars – one with and one without bullets,’ Figueroa stated. The second, he argued, is ‘A black propaganda war against Morena. It's well known that Morena is popular due to our focus on honesty. So they try to make people doubt that.’
Indeed, the candidates have all traded accusations that they are hiring online agitators (trolls) and using bots to manipulate voters, and hundreds of people have also reported automated polling that includes false accusations about AMLO embedded into it.
On top of this, many poorer Mexicans are accustomed to having to vote in the PRI or PAN in exchange for funding for basic social services. Vote buying takes place on an industrial scale, completely distorting the national economy. So much so, the Bank of Mexico has reported cash flow increases of up to six times during electoral campaigns. Parties spend up during campaigning, making deals with companies that make large donations in exchange for future contracts, and the parties use cash to avoid auditing.
The last presidential elections were well known for the Soriana (a large supermarket chain) cards handed out by the PRI, while other voters received cash, construction materials, or food. Often this vote buying can cause conflicts between marginalized communities, including deaths.
Within the voting process, Mexico's electoral organization, the National Electoral Institute (INE), has contracted its data security and auditing out to private company SCITUM, a subsidiary of Telefonos de Mexico, which is owned by billionaire Carlos Slim. Further, the INE in one of its own demonstrations showed that the black pencil often given to voters can be erased with a common school eraser.
Leading in all polls is AMLO, and he is running on behalf of the Together We'll Make History coalition, which consists of his party, Morena, the Workers' Party (PT), and the conservative Social Encounter. AMLO's life has focused on electoral politics: he was initially a member of the PRI, joining it in the 1970s when it was a mishmash of political ideologies. In 1982 he left it after concluding it was hopeless, and eventually joined the PRD. In the 1990s he led 1000-kilometre-long marches to Mexico City in protest of electoral fraud. By 1996, he was the national leader of the PRD, then he was head of government of Mexico City from 2000-2005. He stood out in this position as he lived in a small home, worked 18-hour days, and had 80 per cent approval ratings. He built social housing and schools and reduced city officials' salaries, but also partnered with Carlos Slim to redevelop the historic centre and he built an elevated highway that benefited the middle to upper classes.
AMLO ran for president in 2006, and when election results were close, he called fraud and held two month-long protests in Mexico City. He ran again in 2012 only to sustain his loss. He then left the PRD to form his own party, Morena, with a general message of ‘there cannot be a rich government and a poor people.’
Polls have Ricardo Anaya coming second, closely followed by Jose Meade. Anaya is a lawyer and member of the PAN, running for the For Mexico to the Front coalition, which also includes the PRD and Citizen Movement (CM). He has been a state and federal legislator and head of the PAN. Some people within the PAN accuse Anaya of putting his ambition to be president first, and of causing divisions within the party, leading to the resignation of various leaders.
Meade is running for the All for Mexico coalition that includes the PRI, the conservative Green Ecologist Party (PVEM) and New Alliance. Meade is unusual in that he isn't actually a member of the PRI, but he has held a range of ministry positions under both PRI and PAN presidents, and his family have also been involved in both parties. With a PhD in economics, Meade was seen as a good rival to AMLO because of his reputation for honesty. The PRI however, do not have this reputation, with Pena Nieto's approval rating at 17 per cent.
With AMLO leading, who will vote for him, and why?
The marginalized majority of Mexicans and activists on the left approach Morena and AMLO with varying degrees of hope, caution, and even disgust. Many have committed to vote for him as a least worst option, while for others, Morena's alliance with Social Encounter, a party that has supported the PRI and the PAN in the past and opposes same-sex marriage and abortion, while supporting Israel, is “indefensible.”
‘I won't be voting for AMLO, I'll be voting for the people in Morena who have worked so hard for years … who work to support the party … working with and from communities,’ feminist activist, Lorena (who wished to remain anonymous) told me.
Feminist teacher and poet, Diana Mantilla admitted on social media that she would be voting for AMLO for the first time: ‘I'll do it with deep distrust, with sorrow, because … his campaigns, rather than offering answers, leave me with doubts and uncertainty. I won't vote for him because he'll save us, but rather in rejection of the PRI, the PAN, and the PRD – parties which have demonstrated the worst of politics and of people.’
Even Figueroa, Morena's National Secretary for Human Rights, stated publicly that Morena could face problems if it comes to power. He mentioned possible sectarianism, and possible opportunism within the party. ‘We'll receive people who are dissatisfied with other parties … but Morena can't be the jersey for characters who have spent their whole life acting against its principles …. We aren't bothered if traditional politicians knock on our door, but what is worrying is if they say “I changed my mind a few weeks ago, and now I'd like to be a candidate”.’
Can Mexico's problems be solved by politicians?
Migrant rights activist Gabriela Hernandez is doubtful that an AMLO government would have much impact on those in communities working from the bottom up: ‘We want to believe there would be more people in the congress that would be sympathetic to social struggle, but that doesn't mean they'd listen to our demands. When AMLO governed Mexico City, there were changes, but there were also some things that never even came up. Some people in Morena are left wing, but not all of them, and not all of their policies are. With such a mixture, we have more opportunities, but I don't think anything will be easy.’
Morena's senate candidates range from Nestora Salgado, an activist and former community police commander, through to Germán Martínez, a former PAN leader. And Morena has demonstrated an interesting mix of political positions. AMLO has said that he will invite the pope and the UN general secretary to Mexico to spend five months ‘discussing everything to do with violence’. He also recently met with some of the biggest companies in the country, and told the press, ‘We are going to have a co-operative relationship between the private and public sectors.’ He hopes businesses can help ‘stimulate development, create jobs,’ while Morena's platform makes vague, but hopeful promises of a law against conflict of interest, zero tolerance of security force corruption, ‘accelerated’ transition over to renewable energy, and recognising the autonomy of all the private universities.
After nine decades of PRI rule (with 12 years of those more recently going to the PAN, and the PRI's politics varying significantly) – a platform like Morena's, despite some inconsistencies and gaps, could seem like a lifeline to many. However, the party won't just need internal consensus in its coalition, but also, ideally, a majority in parliament. With currently just 35 out of 500 congress seats, and no governorships, that could be a challenge.
‘If we don't win a majority in the deputies chamber, it will be more difficult than if we don't have one, but the polls show that we could have a majority, and we're confident that we will be able to put together the necessary alliances,’ Figueroa said. One poll gives Morena 39 per cent of senate preferences.
Meanwhile, many have pointed to the party's weak and undefined plans for women's, indigenous, and migrant rights. On 10 June, for example, AMLO gave a speech on the Mexican border with Guatemala, telling Central American migrants that he has committed to treating them ‘fairly,’ though it wasn't clear what that meant or how it would happen.
‘None of them [in Morena] have really taken external migration into account. When they think about migration, they think of Mexicans going to and from the US, not of all the Central American refugees forced to stay in Mexico, now that it is so hard for them to get into the United States,’ Hernandez said.
According to government data, 150,000 migrants attempt to pass through Mexico each year. Many of them face extortion, violence and threats, and many are kidnapped or locked up, while 70 per cent of women are raped or sexually abused.
‘The Mexican government is obligated to get serious and talk about this topic. We'll have to hope that once in government, they listen to the voices of civil society and that they talk to migrants and embrace solutions, change laws, aim to include work permits with temporary stay permits,’ Hernandez said.
Figueroa agreed that more needs to be done. ‘We can't ask the US to do what we won't do for Central American migrants, and we're aware of the violations of human rights here as they pass through Mexico … it's a true tragedy.’ But, he had more to say about Mexican migrants. ‘Our government plan is for zero migrants. We don't want anyone here to be forced to migrate because of the economic situation … As the secretary for human rights I have travelled to the US twice and once to Canada to demand that our migrants, and migrants more generally in the US have their human rights respected.’
Mexico also has extremely high femicide rates, with 1,640 cases in three years. But Hernandez says AMLO has never taken a lead in the fight for women's rights, though his wife has. She described how when AMLO was head of government in Mexico City, his wife was constantly ‘in his shadow’. She made sure that there was always a woman representing the governorship at meetings about security. “It had an impact on feminist groups, they applauded it, but it was always about image rather than real change,’ he said.
In a similar vein, Morena recognizes the impact colonialism has had on indigenous groups, as well as the negative impact of the agribusiness model on them and the importance of self determination. However, the National Indigenous Council rejected an invitation from AMLO's coalition to join them, claiming he is ‘part of the same capitalist system’ and that while the candidates debate for positions, the poor ‘debate between poverty and misery’.