Electoral Paradoxes

INFOLATAM – Luis Rubio

In the end, all won something that will let political life to carry on. What did suffer were the excessive expectations of some of the contenders, whether on the electoral ballot or not. That is, Mexico continues living its normality.

This first group of local elections in Enrique Peña-Nieto’s six-year term was binary. Its importance could be dramatic or irrelevant. There could be no happy medium. The relevance of last Sunday’s elections had nothing to do with the elections themselves, the specific localities or the candidates involved. Their transcendence derives from the mechanism envisaged by President Peña-Nieto to coordinate the three main political parties and to advance an agenda of reforms: the so-called “Pact for Mexico”. The instrument has become a mechanism that has permitted shattering a political and legislative impasse of the last fifteen years but one that does not enjoy consensus among the political forces, wherein lies its weakness. Hence this set of votes would become a litmus test for all involved.

The whole ball of wax (the “carro completo”, as the PRI has historically described their overwhelming results), could have delivered a mortal blow to the Pact. As expected, the result was not as dramatic as that and each of the parties can affirm that it culled enough triumphs to get off more or less free. These elections ended up being not so important, but they did illustrate once more the institutional fragility that characterizes Mexico.

In the absence of duly separated and institutionalized public powers, above all the executive and legislative branches, the pact turned out to be an instrument that has proved formidable for its specific purpose, although equally a generator of conflicts, ill-will, and controversy at the interior of the political parties. The manner in which the pact has operated says it all: its members –representatives of the three big parties (PAN, PRI and PRD) and of the government- negotiate the terms of each reform, turn it over to Congress, where their acolytes have it processed in a matter of hours and subsequently transfer it to the Senate, where it has been blocked every time. The reason for the latter has little to do with the very content of the proposed bills (although it is necessary to recognize that the educative reform as well as that of telecommunications emerged enriched from the Senate), but rather with the internal conflict -crisis would be a better term- that the PAN as well as the PRD are undergoing at present. But the fundamental point must not be lost from sight: as useful as it might be, the pact intends to supplant the functions of the legislature, a factor that would inexorably generate conflict.

All three parties are encountering internal problems. Although the PRI governs and has achieved concealing its fissures, the circumstances of recent lustra have allowed it to regain power without reforming itself and it is to be expected that divisions will crop up to the extent that the government attempts to affect interests, a precondition for any reform. Yesterday’s elections suggest that, although some PRIists won, not all of these victories endorse presidential power and its project to concentrate power.

The case of the PRD is distinct: a product of the fusion of two histories, the historic Left and the PRI Left, now experiencing the challenge of constructing a modern social democracy and, at the same time, winning back that voter base that has supported a reactionary and Statist project headed by López-Obrador that no longer fits in the PRI and that is incompatible with a cosmopolitan and modern social-democratic Left. For the PRD it was crucial to achieve sufficient wins that would justify wagering on the pact, a circumstance achieved in full.

The PAN is encountering a division and a legitimacy crisis. The division reflects a deep struggle between the Calderonist forces that didn’t know how to employ their time in the presidency to construct a party and the more traditional PANists who are the product of the citizenry. Its legitimacy crisis has to do with the PAN’s poor political adeptness as a government and, above all, the corruption to which it fell prey on being in power. The (apparent) PAN win in Baja California strengthens Gustavo Madero, the PAN president and diminishes the power of Calderonists in the Senate.

Party leaders required credible wins to defeat their internal opposition, while the federal government had the peremptory need to remain on the periphery in order not to cause a new crisis inside the opposition parties. The final result reflects three things: an active but immature democracy and one without institutional sources of support; governors convinced that their life, and their future, was at play at the voting booths, thus their willingness to commit to any outrage; and an electorate impossible to insert into pre-established ideologies or analytical categories. That is, the elections reflect a country that moves, if on occasion begrudgingly, despite the weakness of its institutions.

On confirmation of the first results, the parties won enough to not lose face. The PAN retained Baja California and reclaimed Aguascalientes, Oaxaca, Puebla, and important municipalities in Tamaulipas and Veracruz. The PRI won the cities of Tijuana and Veracruz and the states of Chihuahua, Hidalgo, and Quintana Roo. The PRD, which had formed alliances with the PAN in many places, won because of its strategy and because it didn’t lose ground. Perhaps the main message of the electorate is that things returned to normality with the PRI as the prime force, the PAN as second and the PRD as third. Nothing new under the sun.

The great paradox is that people vote, especially in local elections, in terms of their particular circumstances and not with the perspective that national politicians and analysts anticipated and to which they assigned cosmic significance. There’s no doubt that much was at stake in these elections due to the internal struggles that the parties are going through but not because of the electoral processes per se. The great defeat was the violence that many supposed would be the news of the day. The great victory is for those who propose advancing a reform agenda outside of the traditional channels. Round trip paradoxes.