Mexico Presidential Elections: Peña Nieto and the PRI Look Poised to Win

This is a summer for momentous elections, and Mexico’s turn is coming as it prepares to choose its next president on July 1. Here is an overview of the state of affairs in a country that is largely sick of its ruling party; resentful of the legacy associated with the main contender; and skeptical of the third party on the ballot. 

The scene is currently set for the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) to regain the presidency for the first time since the election upset in 2000 which ended PRI's 71 years of continuous rule. Back then, the victory of Fox’s National Action Party (PAN) was thought to mark the demise of the iron-fisted party known for its corruption, corporatism, and culture of handouts.

Twelve years later, Mexicans are upset, and the PRI is resurgent. The economy has grown slightly in recent years, but is still plagued by monopolies and gross inequality. Fox’s successor, Felipe Calderon, intensified the government’s efforts against the country’s organized criminal groups. The resulting flare-up in violence that has claimed more than 50,000 thousand lives to date, continues to expand to new regions of the country, and has no end in sight.

Excluding the smallest party — New Alliance, which is polling in the low single digits — there are three viable candidates for the presidency.

Enrique Peña Nieto of the PRI is the current front runner with more than 40% of projected votes. His party’s comeback began in earnest in 2009, when its candidates won a majority in the legislative elections: the PRI spins its history to present itself as the party that actually knows how to get things done. Peña Nieto previously served as governor of the State of Mexico, where he was known for notarizing each stated commitment to his constituents and boosting public works. His slick campaign is first and foremost selling him as a character — young, handsome, charismatic — while remaining vaguer on his policy plans. This tactic has worked.

While Peña Nieto enjoys a significant lead, the race for the second-place spot is a close one.

Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, also known by the initials AMLO, is the candidate for the leftist Revolutionary Democratic Party (PRD). He is the former head of Mexico City’s government. This marks the third time he has run for the presidency. Six years ago in the contest against the PAN’s Felipe Calderon, AMLO lost by a mere 0.5% of the vote and proceeded to lead massive protests contesting the outcome of the elections. The protests brought downtown Mexico City to a standstill for months.

The PAN’s Josefina Vazquez Mota, meanwhile, is currently trailing in third place. The first female candidate for the presidency, she is a former member of Fox’s cabinet who left to coordinate Calderon’s presidential campaign in 2006 and later became his secretary of education. Her achievements include deploying a conditional cash transfer program to alleviate poverty; the program, known as Oportunidades, has now been emulated in countries throughout the world. Yet her partisan support remains lukewarm which has left Vazquez Mota’s campaign struggling for cash, an unusual situation for the ruling party.

What can we expect in the next week? The candidates have now participated in three debates that left no clear winners or losers. As polls show a record number of undecideds this late in the game (20 to 25%), observers are now wondering whether voters will start deserting whoever is in third place in favor of the two top contestants.

A movement of university students called “I am 132” has emerged on the national stage. They chose the name after Peña Nieto was heckled during a visit to a Mexico City university. His campaign suggested the protesters were impostors from rival parties instead of real students. As a result, 131 students produced a YouTube video affirming their identity and their opposition to the candidate.



The 132 movement claims to not be affiliated with any party, but it is certainly anti-PRI. Its main demand is media impartiality; members criticize Peña Nieto's cozy relationship with Televisa, the country’s largest television network. In defiance, 132 convinced the candidates to hold a third presidential debate, livestreamed through Google+ and YouTube last week, with questions asked by students. Peña Nieto chose not to attend.

Will 132 manage to evolve beyond expressing mere frustration to formulating an actual political agenda? It’s unclear. While 132 may expand, it may not find much traction in the many areas of the country where social networks are not yet as widespread and influential as in the Mexico City urban area. And although 132 it is mainly composed of students, young people in Mexico as a whole largely remain Peña Nieto supporters.

In sum, Peña Nieto currently appears to be cruising toward victory, leaving us to wonder how the return of its old ruling party will treat a changed Mexico.