Having secured the presidential nomination of the Partido Acción Nacional (PAN) Sunday, Josefina Vázquez Mota has already made history as the first female major-party presidential candidate in Mexico’s history. The nomination finalizes the shape of the presidential race in advance of the July 1 Mexican general election, in which voters will elect a new Chamber of Deputies and Senate as well.
Josefina will face off against frontrunner Enrique Peña Nieto, the former governor of the State of Mexico and candidate of the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI) and Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the former head of government of the Distrito Federal (in essence, the mayor of Mexico City) and candidate of the Partido de la Revolución Democrática (PRD).
- The chance to be Mexico’s first female President. Josefina is not as well-known as either Peña Nieto or López Obrador, but she will have the opportunity to introduce herself to Mexican voters over the course of the next five months, and she has already demonstrated that she has the kind of charisma necessary to take on the equally charismatic Peña Nieto. Like with many successful (or near-successful) recent female presidential candidates, such as Hillary Clinton in the United States, Dilma Rousseff in Brazil and Cristina Fernández de Kirchner in Argentina, Josefina’s campaign sharply emphasizes her first name, placing her automatically on a more personal level with voters. Furthermore, Latin Americans have become increasingly comfortable with female presidents – in the past decade, Dilma and Cristina join Laura Chichilla of Costa Rica, Mireya Moscoso of Panama and Michelle Bachelet of Chile in office. Keiko Fujimori only narrowly missed election as Peru’s president in 2011 (for reasons that had to do nothing with her gender). Although Mexico remains a conservative country, by nature, politics and religion, it is not at all unthinkable that Mexican voters would choose to make Josefina ‘la primera Presidenta Mexicana,’ as she promised over the weekend.
- Distance from Calderón and the PAN elite. Josefina is bidding to become the third consecutive PAN President, following outoging President Felipe Calderón and Vicente Fox (Mexican Presidents are term-limited to one six-year stint in office), no easy task against an electorate grown weary of drug violence and the continued corruption that continues to plague Mexico under the Calderón administration. Even though Josefina served as Secretary of Social Development under Fox and as Secretary of Education for the first three years of the Calderón administration, Calderón and the vast majority of the PAN party elite supported her opponent, the less charismatic Secretary of Finance Ernesto Cordero. Standing so starkly in contrast to both Calderón and Cordero, the lack of any institutional PAN support can only help Josefina make a credible argument that she can be an effective change agent on issues ranging from public security to education to labor reform.
- Lingering doubts about the PRI. No matter how much Peña Nieto argues that he represents a rupture from the authoritarian old-guard PRI, every Mexican voter of a certain age remembers the corruption and authoritarianism of the PRI’s rule through most of the 20th century. If you’re concerned about the Calderón’s inability to stop corruption, it is not immediately clear that you would turn to the party that held a monopoly on Mexican politics for seven decades. It would be surprising if many voters did not have at least some reservations about casting a vote to return the PRI to the Mexican Presidency, and it’s certain that Josefina’s campaign will highlight this risk. At the same time, the PRI is the largest party in the Chamber of Deputies, with 241 of the current 500 seats, and the PRI has taken pains to rebrand itself as a centrist party that respects democratic norms. Although it’s only been 12 years since the PRI last held the Mexican Presidency, its last occupant, the wonky Ernesto Zedillo, was hardly the face of autocracy; indeed, he enabled and hastened the onset of multi-party politics in Mexico. With 10 million Mexican voters eligible to vote for the first time in 2012, many voters may not remember the worst of the old system.
- PRD’s ability to rally the Mexican left. Although many observers believe that the current Mexico City mayor, Marcelo Ebrard, would have made a stronger presidential candidate for the PRD, Ebrard withdrew in November in favor of López Obrador, who retains a cadre of very loyal supporters on the Mexican left and from his 2006 run. His controversial protest of the 2006 results, however, coupled with some of his more radical language, has repulsed many voters, and he remains the candidate with the highest negative ratings. Although the PRI has managed in its history to be a bit of a chameleon along the ideological spectrum, every PRD vote is a vote that would likely otherwise go to the PRI; the PAN, a pro-business party that’s long been associated with the Catholic Church in Mexico, should retain much of the support the Mexican right. If López Obrador rallies and retains large parts of the coalition that almost won the 2006 election, including many working class urban voters and rural voters in southern Mexico, it could draw enough from Peña Nieto’s lead to allow Josefina to win.
- The suspicion that Peña Nieto’s lead is wide, not deep. The latest polls continue to show Peña Nieto with a wide lead of greater than 20 points over Josefina and López Obrador. But it’s not clear that voters have truly focused on the race; for years in the mid-2000s until just before the 2006 election, it was conventionally accepted wisdom that López Obrador was the heavy favorite, running against the gray Calderón and the withering fossil of the PRI. It is in any event inevitable that the race will tighten over the next five months, and Peña Nieto has committed several gaffes recently – for instance, he couldn’t accurately state the price of a kilo of tortillas, explaining sheepishly, “No soy la señora de la casa.” (I am not the housewife). Given Josefina’s potential to rally the female vote to her cause, those may be words that Peña Nieto will deeply come to regret.