Mid-term Elections

FORBES – September 2014

Luis Rubio

Who will win the mid-term elections of 2015? Will the PRI hold an absolute majority that could bring about a return to the old political system? It’s impossible to predict the result, but it certainly is possible to speculate about the elements that could produce diverse scenarios.

The dynamic of the mid-term elections has followed a changing logic. For Salinas, the 1991 election was a radical success: what he hadn’t achieved in 1988 election was obtained in the midterms. Salinas’ victory was a sweeping one because his party came in first in the 300 majority districts, as in the old times. The analysts’ reading at the time was that the result constituted an approval of the president’s leadership. This was considered the norm when Zedillo’s intermediate election, in 1997, led to the PRI’s losing the majority for the first time in history: the crisis of 95 had undermined the president. It appeared to be an immutable rule.

The situation changed during the PANist governments:  Fox as well as Calderón lost the intermediate election but it is not evident that it was for same reason. In the former logic, the PAN defeat in 2003 and 2009 would reflect disenchantment with those governments. However, from the defeat of the PRI in 2000 an important change materialized -the weakening of the presidency and the concomitant strengthening of the state governors- introducing another element into the electoral dynamic. From 2000 great budgetary transfers came into play and the state governors appropriated extensive autonomy and capacity of political and electoral manipulation. President Peña was perhaps the most successful of the State governors of that era.

In contrast with the prior PRIist era, budgets began to be negotiated in Congress and that conferred enormous incentive on governors to construct grand and robust Congressional delegations that would guarantee benefits to their states; thus they became electoral activists and had the money to be successful. That has changed again.

President Peña has recentralized the power and reinforced the presidential institution, practically eliminating the budgetary function of Congress. Consequently, the governors have lost relative power and discretionary budgets, diminishing their capacity and incentive for acting on their own. Within this context, will the recent logic continue to function? Will Mexico return to the PRI era? A novel dynamic?

There is no doubt that, with the return of presidential centralism, the electoral dynamic will respond to a greater extent to the perception of the President’s leadership and, above all, to his economic performance. That would suggest that the dynamic of the intermediate election would return to that of PRIist times. That is, 2015 will be a referendum of President Peña, where economic performance will become key.

But there is another factor that is imperative to incorporate into the analysis: the maturation of the society. The first presidential election in which there was professionally managed public polling was that of Zedillo in 1994. In his election as well as in that of Fox, a peculiar phenomenon transpired: while the winner obtained a certain percentage of the vote, in successive surveys –after six months or more- a much larger number of persons affirmed having voted for the winning candidate. The interpretation that the pollsters supplied for that phenomenon was that it represented a politically immature society and that implied that people tended to associate themselves with the winner: i.e., the weight of presidentialism. That phenomenon has virtually disappeared with new generations: Calderon’s as well as Peña’s popularity has “stubbornly” lingered very close to the number they obtained in the election itself. Concerning the question of whom to vote for, the discrepancy between the real vote and what people say is trifling: that is, the society has matured.

Another relevant ingredient is the situation of the opposition parties.  The PAN as well as the PRD are undergoing intense internal divisions. To that is added the fact that both parties participated in the Pact for Mexico, which means that, if things turn out well, the PRI will benefit; if they turn out poorly, all three lose. Unless a disastrous situation ensues in the upcoming months, that would perhaps not impact the 2015 result, but could impact the next presidential race. In addition, and very important, many electoral contests will presumably revolve around local candidates and not national parties.

Of course, there’s no way to predict what will happen next year, but it’s not impossible for the two key factors to be the following: that each district’s candidates (that is, a more local and less national dynamic), and the economic situation, particularly the perception and expectations about how things are going, end up deciding the outcome. If the current economic situation continues, the PRI will have much less to offer in spite of the President’s recent political successes.