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Mexican Presidental Battle Goes Down to the Wire

Council On Hemispheric Affairs
Thursday, June 29, 2006
COHA Report:

Mexican Presidential Election:

Mexican Presidental Battle Goes Down to the Wire, with Major Transformations Likely in Store

• With three days remaining before Mexicans head to the polls to elect a new president, the electoral picture is as muddied for them as ever: neither Andrés López Obrador nor Felipe Calderón hold a decisive advantage, and Roberto Madrazo is not completely out of the picture
• The race now seems to turn on which candidate is perceived as the “menos mal” – the least bad option – as voters have become weary after a long and brutal campaign that has left no candidate with preening plumage
• The two frontrunners have projected sharply contrasting platforms, with López Obrador purposively symbolizing change, which is mainly focused on the abatement of poverty, while Calderón cannot shake his casting as being the “continuity” candidate
• While the outcome of the presidential race is uncertain, the election will mark a profound reshaping of Mexico’s political landscape

• Mexico needs the U.S.— a constant fact of life which none of the candidates can change

With the Mexican presidential race entering its final hours, the outcome still remains in doubt. Felipe Calderón of the ruling PAN party is running neck and neck with left-leaning Andrés Manuel López Obrador of the PRD, although the latter held a slight lead in the campaign’s final series of polls published on June 23 (the latest permitted under electoral law). Yet neither of the frontrunners had struck a decisive blow, and many voters are less than enthusiastic about their options. While the contrasting visions and styles of Calderón and López Obrador present a defined, if perhaps uninspiring, choice for the country one thing is clear: the election will leave an indelible mark on modern Mexico, because of the different social and economic philosophies standing behind the different presidential campaigns. Another fact of life for Mexico is that a good relationship with the U.S. is vital to their national interests, due to the closeness of the two countries. No candidate dared run on a ticket attacking U.S. trade (Mexico is the United States’ second most important trading partner) or other bilateral issues such as immigration, drug trafficking and terrorism.

Between Two Unknowns

Despite a wearying campaign, as July 2 approaches, many voters are no more sure of which candidate truly represents the best option for the country. Much of the race was occupied with viperous attacks and intense mudslinging – largely emanating from the PAN war room and acting upon the supposed advice of American political consultants. The latter’s backroom counsel was that rather than attacking opponent’s platforms, you hit personality issues. This leit motif not only alienated much of the electorate, which is likely to abstain at a 40% rate, but also has left many voters to make a choice on who they will support based only on vague rhetoric. Yet there is, nonetheless, a clear choice to be made among the candidates: change or continuity.

A Mandate for Change

The promise of national transformation has been the fuel firing López Obrador’s campaign. The perredista’s hopeful vision for change has drawn predictable support from the country’s substantial poor population, of who did not benefit at all from the slight overall economic growth witnessed under the Fox administration. If the mandate is for change, however, its direction has been loosely defined. López Obrador has not positioned himself as entirely antagonistic to the private sector (although certain Mexican business interests have encouraged fearmongering insinuations that he is basically a Chávez clone) and seems likely to champion a “New Deal” type model of state intervention in certain sectors of the economy. What has generated the most support for López Obrador, though, is not the specific strength of this vision, but the more abstract yet sharply polemical pledges he has made to end privileges for the rich and powerful and to “put the poor first.” But if some dismiss this line as merely boiler plate broadsides, others say that the poverty issue is at the core of his campaign. Regardless, despite the resonance of such rhetoric with with potential voters, it is not necessarily the foundation for effective governance. For many Mexicans the nature of a future López Obrador government remains an unknown quantity.

Questioning Continuity

The uncertainties surrounding López Obrador have engendered some support — even among the poor — for Calderón, who is anything but unpredictable. Although he has feinted towards autonomy and was not Fox’s chosen successor during the PAN primary, he is now the consummate “continuity” candidate, presenting himself as the stable option instead of a “dangerous” and volatile López Obrador. And in a society that has long been almost paralytically wary of abrupt change, this holds a certain appeal. Yet if the election does become a referendum on Fox’s basically unpopular administration, Calderón’s footing will be far weaker than he would like people to believe.

The open market, pro-business policies championed by the PAN government proved, under Fox, that it was incapable of delivering on promises that there would be rapid economic growth. While overall, national indicators did improve, poverty was unabated, and Fox’s lauded “million jobs a year,” like a bad joke, never arrived. Neither was the panista administration even minimally capable of reining in crime and violence, and it never proved a tactful negotiator on issues of social justice. Worse still, despite strong rhetoric, Fox never extirpated the cancer of corruption from Mexican public life. At the end of the day, Calderón cannot distance himself from this legacy. Indeed, it seems as though the appeal for change could ultimately prove to be the stronger enticement.

Landscaping the Political Battlefield

Nonetheless, at this point it is impossible to foresee whether this impetus for change will reach all the way to the chief executive office, as López Obrador and Calderón run neck and neck in one of the closest races in Mexican history. Yet, despite indecision on the part of the electorate, the effects of the election will be felt on many levels, as the 2006 ballot has helped to redefine Mexico’s political landscape. As the country is bound to face crucial questions having to do with institutional reform, foreign relations and economic policy in the next six years, these factors could prove even more significant than the outcome of the presidential vote. This year has seen significant changes in the structure of the country’s political parties, as the PAN has consolidated its strength and built on past gains; the PRI has experienced a whirlwind of centrifugal forces that have somewhat undermined its standing; and the PRD has taken a larger measure of its rivals and has moved from being a regional to a more national party. Indeed, it seems likely that congress will divide in a near equal three-way split.

A Skeleton of the Past

The PRI, despite losing the presidency in 2000 – its centerpiece raison d’etre throughout its 71-year authoritarian rule – remained the country’s most integrated and effective political organization for much of Fox’s sexenio. Yet the 2006 ballot unleashed a maelstrom in the typically highly disciplined party, as infighting and disputes over internal positions ultimately resulted in a potential breakdown, with several high level priistas shuffling their allegiances from their party’s candidate, Roberto Madrazo, to Calderón or López Obrador. If such defections ultimately torpedoed Madrazo’s candidacy – he is not entirely out of the race as of yet – the PRI, nevertheless appears poised to retain control of a significant portion of the country’s total legislative and local government positions. The PRI will likely form the largest block in the next Senate, though it could see its representation in the Chamber of Deputies fall off sharply. While July 2 will be the ultimate litmus test of the party’s ability to resist disintegration, even under the worst of circumstances, it appears as though the PRI will remain a formidable factor in Mexican political life for the foreseeable future.

Riding the Coattails

Whether or not the tremendous appeal of López Obrador will translate to his party and its other candidates, has been a central question beginning early in the presidential race. The answer appears to be a qualified “yes.” While support for the PRD overall lags somewhat behind that of the perredista presidential candidate, the party, nonetheless, seems likely to dramatically increase its representation in the Senate and see a notable increase in the Chamber of Deputies as well. If the PRD has not transcended its regional limitations – something that has also bedeviled the PAN – the 2006 election is likely to see significant growth in the PRD’s stature and standing across Mexico, perhaps making it a truly national party. Given that it lacks the governing experience of its rivals, the PRI and the PAN, the next several years will determine whether the PRD can cement its new status as a national political organization.

Complicates the Political Scene

Beyond the shifts in party strength, however, 2006 has witnessed the profound reworking in the Mexican body politic. Regional divisions are now more clearly defined, with PAN strength solidified in the north and the PRD entrenched in Mexico City and parts of the south. Attitudes have also shifted, as leftist politics are now gaining an increased acceptance with the population. This shift has been propelled by the end of the PRI’s 71-year authoritarian rule, during which the party had officially incorporated leftist ideology into its institutional platform as a preemptive strategy meant to stymie the full-fledged emergence of the left. When cooptation failed, the PRI often resorted to brutal repression. Liberated from such stultifying conditions, authentic left-leaning parties, including, but not limited to, the PRD, have been able to gather strength in different parts of the country where, previously its voice was only faintly heard. This solidification of the Mexican left mirrors, to an extent, developments being witnessed elsewhere in Latin America, where various forms of “pink tide” politics have gained popularity.

For Mexico, a strengthened left has the potential to alter the dynamics of the country’s political debate, effectively offsetting the conservative PAN and providing an alternative to the vague centrist policies of the PRI. Regardless of whether or not López Obrador attains the presidency, this grassroots trajectory for his party is firmly underway.

Turning for Home

With the race for the presidency in its final hours, Mexicans are now attempting to choose between two clearly contrasting, if not always inspiring, candidates. But the significance of the election stretches beyond the presidential mansion, as even if the PAN remains in Los Pinos, 2006 will mark the beginning of a new period for modernizing Mexico. The ballot will also largely define the political terrain on which future electoral battles will be fought, and potentially reveal fundamental changes in civil society. As the candidates head down the stretch, much of the country’s democratic future will be at play.


This analysis was prepared by COHA Research Fellow Michael Lettieri

June 29, 2006

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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