The great magic of the old political system lay in the expectation that there would always be a new opportunity to reinvent the country with the change of governments. When a government was bad, the saying went that “there is no evil that lasts six years nor a people that can endure it.” When the outgoing administration was good, the citizens rewarded it with a favorable vote in the elections for its successor. But the presidents of yesteryear did not leave things to chance: good or bad, popular or not, they resorted to transactional mechanisms to ensure a favorable vote, in addition to employing all the mechanisms of electoral fraud that were necessary to ensure an overwhelming victory. Mexicans are now living through another era of Mexican politics -at least of the country’s political reality-, apparently having returned to vote buying, by good or bad means, within the law or not. The question is whether the new method will be as successful.
The first indication that this six-year term would be different was evident in the President’s disinterest -in fact radical opposition- to promoting economic growth. The priority, from the beginning, was the 2024 succession and nothing else. Despite the rhetoric that “the poor first,” for the President the poor were merely an electoral instrument and reducing poverty went against the succession objective: in the words of the president of Morena at the time, “when you take people out of poverty and they become middle class, they forget where they come from, because people think how they live.” In short: the poor are a reserve of votes and the last thing that Morena wants is that there be fewer poor people and more middle-class voters because the latter stop conceiving themselves as “people” to think as citizens. Economic growth ends up being a curse for the only objective that motivated this administration: ensuring victory in 2024.
Consequently, everything that was done throughout the six-year term followed a strictly electoral logic: where are the votes and how to ensure that government programs make their target voters dependent on the handouts granted by the government, but always in the name of the president, as if they came from his own money. Cash transfers to older adults, young people and other target audiences had a strictly political logic and the evidence shows that poverty was not one of the relevant criteria. That is, the presidential narrative said one thing, but the logic was always laser focused: to secure the votes.
The governments of yesteryear -from the Revolution (1910) until 2018- sought votes in two ways: on the one hand, they employed economic and investment strategies aimed at significant economic improvement that, in turn, would raise the standards of living and, therefore, satisfied the population, trusting that this would translate into a favorable vote for the outgoing government. Some were extremely successful, others ended up causing terrible crises, but there was not even one administration that did not follow this rationale, similar to what one could observe anywhere on the planet.
The other way of seeking votes was transactional: candidates invented all kinds of mechanisms to exchange favors for votes. On some occasions they distributed household goods, breakfasts or groceries in exchange for the promise of the vote (later they demanded a photo of the vote itself), in others they produced cash cards, but the purpose was transparent: whatever the performance of the outgoing government, the candidate offered an “incentive” for the voter to respond favorably on election day. In the era prior to the electoral reform of 1996, various strategies were added to ensure that the vote was as the government and its party wanted: recurring to manipulation of the voters’ registry, “frequent” voting, factious use of the media, etc. With the 1996 reform, all these practices were prohibited and, although what followed was not perfect, it constituted a scheme of impeccable level playing field for electoral competition, as evidenced by the countless alternations of parties in power at all levels of government.
Today Mexico has returned to the prehistoric, certainly pre democratic, era of national political life. The President has not the slightest scruple in using all the resources at his disposal to ensure his electoral objective. When a path is closed to him -for example a call from the INE, the electoral authority, which is already biased in his favor, to refrain from being so crass in his ways- he invents twenty constitutional reforms just to remain a legitimate player in the electoral field through his daily press conferences, known as “mañaneras.” He, too, has not the slightest qualm about presenting himself as the head of his candidate’s campaign, which he controls and limits all the time.
The outcome of this election will depend on a single factor: to what extent citizens recognize the manipulation to which they have been subjected by the government through the exchange of favors for votes. If the voter realizes that it is an old-style manipulation, he or she will act as a citizen; If he or she believes that AMLO is a mythical leadership, he or she will behave like a subject, expecting more handouts.
As another Mexican saying goes, “Every little saint ends up getting his little party.” This year’s will mark a before and after.