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COHA: Upcoming Mexican Presidential Elections

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Council On Hemispheric Affairs
Monitoring Political, Economic and Diplomatic Issues Affecting the Western Hemisphere
Memorandum to the Press 05.08
Word Count: 2050

Tuesday, 25 January 2005

Upcoming Mexican Presidential Elections: Tumultuous Economic
and Political Times Ahead

• Throughout 2004, the race for Mexico’s 2006 presidential elections intensified, largely relegating the country’s economic development to the backburner and leaving little hope that President Vicente Fox can carry out significant reforms in the remaining time of his otherwise disappointing presidency.

• Barring some unforeseen development, Mexico City’s mayor, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, Partido Revolucionario Institutional’s (PRI) president Roberto Madrazo and the PAN Minister of the Interior Santiago Creel are likely to be the leading contenders in the 2006 presidential ballot.

• Other political figures, including former Foreign Minister Jorge Castañeda, Mexico State governor Arturo Montiel and former Energy Minister Felipe Calderón are also likely candidates but in several cases have little or no chance of winning their parties’ candidacy, let alone the presidency, and most likely will have little or no impact on the race.

• On December 7, 2004 Fox nominated Foreign Minister Luis Ernesto Derbez to be Mexico’s candidate for the Organization of American States (OAS) Secretary-General. Derbez could have become an obstacle to the prospective nomination of Fox’s favored candidate, Santiago Creel, so the OAS nomination can be looked upon as a consolation prize for Derbez in order to clear the way for Creel.

Almost immediately after Vicente Fox’s 2000 election, one of the most salient issues in Mexican politics was the upcoming 2006 presidential race. Analysts and political figures have speculated whether PAN could pull off another surprise election victory, or whether the PRI, the nation’s traditional ruling party, would be able to wrest back executive control, which it had previously exercised for decades. One other possibility would be that for the first time, a candidate from the left-of-center Democratic Revolution Party (PRD) would be the one to move into the Los Pinos presidential residence.

Now that the election is less than two years away, the list of possible candidates is nearly complete, with polls showing the PRD’s Andrés Manuel López Obrador narrowly leading the pack – as he has for two years – slightly ahead of the PRI’s Roberto Madrazo and Santiago Creel of the PAN. As the three main political parties now initiate a force-draft battle for the presidency, Mexico continues to struggle with slowed economic growth, rising unemployment and disjointed relations between Congress and the president. Furthermore, Fox’s goal of negotiating a bilateral agreement regulating the millions of illegal Mexican immigrants now in the United States is still far out of reach and much-needed energy, institutional and income-tax reforms have yet to be approved by Congress. Most members of the political class would have you believe that there is little possibility for substantial progress during Fox’s remaining time in office.

Fox vs. Congress

Although Fox’s presidency had an auspicious beginning following the series of PRI scandals that helped him win the office, PAN’s lack of governing experience on the national level soon became evident. In one of his first actions as president, Fox proposed a controversial fiscal reform to increase government revenue by instituting imposts on food and medicine, a measure intended to tax the 35-40 percent of the population that currently evades taxes. The PRI, looking to take political advantage of the unpopularity of these reforms, but wracked by bitter internal reform, tore into them. Unfortunately for Fox, this was just the beginning of what would grow into tense relations between Congress and his office, as well as continuous strife between the ruling PAN and the now faction-ridden PRI-led opposition. Further reforms directed at the energy and fiscal sectors have been blocked by a Congress intent on paralyzing the Fox government and shrinking PAN’s popularity in anticipation of the 2006 elections.

The Contenders

Currently, the opposition candidates seem to hold a modest advantage over the PAN’s presumptive nominee. However, the PRD is the only party that has its candidate more or less determined, although López Obrador has yet to declare his formal candidacy and is unlikely to do so in the near future. By delaying such an announcement he avoids pressure from his adversaries to step down as Mexico City’s mayor. During his tenure as mayor, López Obrador attracted wide popular support, but a recent poll conducted by the respected Mexican daily El Universal is now showing a 4 percent decrease in public approval over the past year. Polls by Ipso-Bimsa and the Mexico City daily Reforma show López Obrador holding a slight lead among the current presidential candidates, with 29 percent, compared to Madrazo’s 27 and Creel’s 26. López Obrador’s backing stems from his social policies, which walk a fine line between populism and pragmatism, and his relentless criticism of Fox. However, his image has been damaged as a result of corruption scandals involving Mexico City municipal officials, but not himself. López Obrador contends that these scandals are part of a smear campaign orchestrated by opposition forces afraid of his popularity.

Meanwhile, the Fox administration has had its own problems prompted by the upcoming election. The Mexican president was embarrassed in 2003 when then Foreign Minister Jorge Castañeda resigned from his post to begin his quest for the presidency. Despite polls showing he would receive only 3 percent of the vote, Castañeda, currently an independent candidate, has stayed in the race because, as he sees it, “the citizens want a different alternative to the three big parties that have paralyzed the country.” Others would maintain that Castañeda is doing nothing more than cannily looking for a new political roost after alienating many Mexicans for his outspoken backing of the U.S. and his unexpectedly fierce anti-Cuba stance. Another complicating factor is furnished by Fox’s former Energy Minister, Felipe Calderón, who has made public his intention to become the PAN’s candidate in 2006, thus setting the stage for a confrontation with Creel. A shrewd politician, Calderón has stated that should he win the presidency, he would try to improve relations with the opposition by possibly naming PRI members to his cabinet, a move that could win him legislative votes. National polls have yet to provide enough information to determine Calderón’s vote drawing power.

On November 29, Reforma published an interview with Foreign Minister Derbez in which he revealed his desire to be the PAN’s candidate in the 2006 elections, saying he is “the only one that can give continuity to President Vicente Fox’s project.” Such a statement, far from attracting voters, might actually keep them away, considering Fox’s flagging popularity. However, on December 7, Fox announced that Derbez was to be Mexico’s candidate to head the OAS Secretariat, which most political observers consider to be a way of moving Derbez from the presidential race in order to clear the way for Creel’s candidacy.

Minister of the Interior Creel, the most likely PAN candidate, would receive 26 percent of the vote if the election were held today, placing him just behind López Obrador and Madrazo. Throughout the year, López Obrador consistently criticized Creel for not fulfilling his government responsibilities and instead devoting his attention to his campaign and political dealings that might earn him support in the elections.

Of all the candidates, Roberto Madrazo has remained the most discreet, focusing his attention on winning the PRI’s nomination. By not coming out too strongly on the issue, he is trying not to split the PRI internally, which would weaken his prospects as a candidate. In any event, Madrazo has the distinct advantage of belonging to the country’s most popular party. The PRI’s gradual return to its historical status as a political powerhouse may be related to its stability in opposition during the Fox administration. Its expanding popularity became evident in the 2003 by-term elections as well as in recent gains in the number of congressional seats it held and in gubernatorial elections of key states like Nuevo León, Chihuahua and Veracruz, among others. While the PAN and PRD were engaging in puerile confrontations, the PRI has shown its ability to skillfully negotiate and align itself with several of the smaller Mexican parties, such as Partido del Trabajo, Partido Verde Ecologista de México and Convergencia por la Democracia.

Internal Disputes

The upcoming elections have the potential to be the closest in Mexican history, not only due to information gleaned from recent polls, but also as a result of the internal crisis presently evident in the three main Mexican parties. The PRD’s main shortcoming lies in its lack of national structure even though its candidate, López Obrador, remains a very popular political figure and one of the favorites for the 2006 presidential election. However, his popularity and voting base is concentrated mainly in the center and southern parts of Mexico. As much as the left-of-center PRD would like to consider itself as an already strong competitor, it is imperative that the party focus on expanding its popularity country-wide. Furthermore, the three-time presidential candidate and moral leader of the PRD, Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas Solórzano, remained opposed to López Obrador’s candidacy as he considers himself the most suitable choice to head the ticket. Nonetheless, some of the national press and many PRD activists consider Cárdenas Solórzano’s son, Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas Batel, as López Obrador’s logical pinch hitter if the latter’s campaign unexpectedly falters.

On the other hand, the PAN’s Creel takes note of the internal disputes between the Fox-supporters and the conservative figures, represented by Felipe Calderón and the current PAN president Luis Felipe Bravo Mena. Besides the problems Creel may have, which are intrinsic to his own background, his campaign for the nomination will surely have to face multiple obstacles if he is to change the current PAN image. This challenge could result from the Fox administration’s essentially failed legacy and from having to create a winning strategy that will be attractive to the broader Mexican electorate as well as to his immediate Panista base.

Finally, the internal contest for the PRI’s nomination may present some trouble for Madrazo, as many party members see him as a corrupt figure who could tempt a susceptible PRI to return to the venal practices that traditionally characterized the former ruling party’s authoritarian and crooked politics. The inclusion of corruption’s “dynamic duo,” the brothers Jorge and Carlos Hank Rohn, in Madrazo-backed campaigns in Tijuana and the State of Mexico, respectively, are clear evidence of Madrazo’s well-known link to the shady side of Mexico’s political practices.

If Madrazo fails to win the PRI’s candidacy, then likely rivals, such as Arturo Montiel, Senator Enrique Jackson and former governor Tomás Yarrington are likely to emerge as possible entries. Nevertheless, it is important to consider that Madrazo will “duel to the death” against anyone with pretences to displace him from bearing the PRI’s colors, which he previously failed to capture while seeking the party’s nomination in 2000.

Mexico’s Future

The battle for the 2006 presidency began the moment Vicente Fox was first elected. During Fox’s increasingly disappointing tenure, the upcoming election became a permanent factor in breeding tension among all of the parties, none of which were willing to yield an inch, to the detriment of the country’s economic development and political stability. During this period, the opposition parties were hardly interested in creating benign environment that would help realize Fox’s legislative agenda or fulfill PAN’s vision of a more prosperous Mexico. In the end, as has occurred time and time again in more than one country, political interests have blocked the much-needed changes that could bring improvements to Mexico.

In the following months the fight for the nomination and then for the presidency will intensify. However, it is important to remember that the Fox administration has nearly two more years in office. Although some Mexicans would like to believe that at long last democracy is a reality in their country, political infighting consistently trumps the proven needs of the population. But many Mexican voters insist that the parties and the politicians involved in the elections should now start proving their worth by working for the good of the country. The Fox administration, Congress and the country’s leading political actors have done a lackluster job of prioritizing the well-being of the citizenry. If politicians single-mindedly keep their focus on the 2006 elections rather than Mexico’s pressing needs, Mexicans can expect more of the self-serving antics and political superficiality with which they have become familiar in the past four years.

This analysis was prepared by Alejandro Macías, COHA Research Associate.

January 25, 2005

The Council on Hemispheric Affairs, founded in 1975, is an independent, non-profit, non-partisan, tax-exempt research and information organization. It has been described on the Senate floor as being “one of the nation’s most respected bodies of scholars and policy makers.” For more information, please see our web page at; or contact our Washington offices by phone (202) 223-4975, fax (202) 223-4979, or email

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