An Explosive Election Year Kicks Off in Mexico 


The glow of New Year’s Eve had barely faded when Mexico’s election year fireworks began in earnest. As the 2018 primaries  unfold, scrambles for political seats, flashy campaign ads and negative campaigning reverberate across the country. Besides a new president and congress, Mexicans will elect local officials in most states during the July 1 general election.  

According to the official National Electoral Institute (INE), registered Mexican voters living abroad will be allowed to cast ballots by mail. 

Shaping the race is the dismal popularity of outgoing President Pena Nieto’s Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) administration, accented by the closing of 2017 with the highest annual inflation rate (nearly 7%) since 2000 and a surge of narco violence. 

Fears of election violence were fanned by at least 12 murders between late November and mid-January of current or former government office holders and political leaders, including prospective candidates, in seven states, according to Mexican press accounts.

Though hailing from different political parties, the victims all resided in regions where organized crime holds great sway.

Proceso magazine’s Arturo Garcia Rodriguez assessed the murders as a “grave precedent of what will continue happening during the electoral process.” 

Added to the targeting of politicians, rising violence against civil society activists and journalists is ringing alarm bells.

The Cerezo Committee human rights organization tallied the murders of 48 activists and journalists nationwide during 2017. 

Among the victims were Chihuahua journalist Miroslava Breach, who was reportedly investigating narco-infiltration of local elections when she was gunned down, and Meztli Sarabia, daughter of Ruben Sarabia, longtime leader of leftist organizations in the state of Puebla.

2018 got off to a bad start, too, when Mexican media reported the January 13 killing of political journalist Carlos Dominguez in Tamaulipas state.

With violence hovering over the landscape, three major political coalitions will vie for the presidency and congress. The ruling PRI has again joined hands with the Mexican Green Party and New Alliance Party, fielding former taxation and budget secretary Jose Eduardo Meade as its favored presidential nominee. PRI leaders chose Meade, who is not a party member and has served in both PRI and opposition governments, in an effort to paint his candidacy as a “citizen” run. 

Left-nationalist and Morena party leader Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, who is making his third run for the presidency, is also backed by the small Labor and Social Encounter parties.

A third coalition, uniting the conservative PAN with the onetime left PRD party and the centrist Citizen Movement party is expected to field PAN leader Ricardo Anaya as its presidential choice. 

Stirred into a hot political pot are the proliferation of independent candidacies outside the formal control of established political parties; the specter of dark money in the campaigns; the resurgence of an ultra-right with an anti-gay, anti-abortion and anti-public education political agenda; new powers granted to the Mexican military; and an uncertain future for the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the cornerstone of the Mexican economic model. 

Now allowed to run under reformed election law, six independents are striving for the presidential ballot. To make the cut, each prospective candidate will have to present nearly 900,000 verified signatures of registered voters in February. 

The six include Jaime “El Bronco” Rodriguez, governor-with-leave from the northern state of Nuevo Leon; Margarita Zavala, former PAN legislator and wife of ex-president Calderon; Armando Rios Piter, former PRD member and senator-with-leave from violence-torn  Guerrero; Edgar Ulises Portillo, a Mexico City academic who is wooing the millenial vote; Maria “Marichuy” Patricio Martinez, an indigenous healer from Jalisco who serves as the spokesperson for the Zapatista-supporter Indigenous Government Council; and journalist Pedro Ferriz.

Signature gathering hasn’t been smooth sailing. Supporters of Marichuy complained of difficulties in uploading signatures to the electronic system used by the INE. Ferriz claimed shadowy individuals were commercially trafficking voter data, while the INE announced it had uncovered irregularities in many of the submitted signatures. The federal election authority warned that potential candidates could be disqualified, pending hearings. 

Given the number of presidential hopefuls, it’s unlikely any single contender will obtain an absolute majority and indeed may attain power with a slim plurality;  

Early polls show Lopez Obrador leading, but with under 40% of the vote. Sharp attacks against the former Mexico City mayor are growing daily, with some opponents trying to link him to Venezuela and Russia.

The foreign factor figured big in January. PRI President Enrique Ochoa, for instance, proclaimed that a Lopez Obrador victory would destabilize the Mexican economy and cause a 10% peso devaluation. 

As evidence, he cited a Bank of America Merrill Lynch analysis that forecasted a stormy economy under Lopez Obrador because of investor fears. 

What Ochoa failed to mention, however, was that the peso has lost about 40% of its value to the dollar since the PRI returned to power in 2012, or that, according to a new study by the National Autonomous University of Mexico, Mexicans have seen 80% of their purchasing power dissolve since 1987 — years marked by Mexico’s PRI-led plunge into the global economy and NAFTA.

Latching on to the foreign angle, Lopez Obrador’s opponents began urging the INE to investigate the Morena leader’s alleged ties to Russia. The calls were fueled by a Frida Ghitis op-ed in the Washington Post that was partly based in brief remarks made by H.R. McMaster, President Trump’s national security advisor, at a conference last December. 

Without offering details, McMaster declared that “initial signs” indicated Russian meddling in the upcoming Mexican elections.

Writing in Milenio, Mexican columnist Hugo Garcia treated Ghitis’ piece as if it were a hard, investigative revelation. Garcia held that since Ghitis’ piece appeared in the Washington Post, as opposed to Fox News, the story merited serious attention. 

Lopez Obrador ridiculed both the Venezuela and Russia connections he was alleged to maintain.   

“..The mafia that is in power in this country is very desperate,” he said in a statement. “They are the ones financing this (negative) campaign, but the publicists they contract aren’t very creative.”

On the campaign trail in the state of Coahuila, Lopez Obrador later characterized the 2018 election as a historic opportunity for Mexico to pursue a new, inward-looking path of development that will benefit all citizens.

Kent Paterson is a freelance journalist who divides his time between Mexico and the US Southwest.

From The Progressive Populist, Febuary 15, 2018

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