Mexican race still Peña Nieto’s to lose


Despite decisively winning the presidential nomination of the PAN (Partido Acción Nacional) in February and emerging in the Mexican presidential race with a flash,  Josefina Vázquez Mota has spent the last week attempt to rejuvenate her campaign and unite the PAN in her cause, even as the latest polls show that Enrique Peña Nieto, the candidate of the PRI (Partido Revolucionario Institucional), remains the strong favorite to win the Mexican presidency on July 1.

The latest polls indicate Peña Nieto leads with 38% of the vote to just 25% for Vázquez Mota and 19% for Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the candidate of the PRD (Partido de la Revolución Democrática), who came within a fraction of a percentage of winning the presidency in 2006.

In the 12 days since the campaign formally started, Vázquez Mota has been plagued by missteps— the former education minister’s campaign was ridiculed when her team misspelled the Mexican state of Tlaxcala as ‘Tlazcala’ on Twitter, for example. 

She has tried to draw a line around her campaign this week, starting with a show of PAN unity.  Her rival for the PAN nomination, former finance minister Ernesto Cordero, appeared at a press conference with Vázquez Mota on Monday, and Luisa María Calderón, the sister of outgoing, term-limited president Felipe Calderón, has been put in charge of the get-out-the-vote effort in Calderón’s home state of Michoacán.  Cordero was viewed as Calderón’s favorite and the favorite of many of the PAN elite during the nomination race.

Nonetheless, even today, former president Vicente Fox opined that it would take a miracle for Vázquez Mota to defeat the PRI and win the presidency:

Lo racional me dice que ahora lo que tenemos que hacer es de esa opción (el PRI) que puede llegar a la Presidencia, obligarla a ser buena, obligarla a que deje de sere nostálgico de aquel pasado, de aquellos niveles de corrupción y autoritarismo que vivimos antes, que sea una nueva generación de priístas.

[Translated into English: My rationality tells me that, we have the real option of (the PRI) winning the president, it will be obligated to be good, obligated to stop being nostalgic for the past, those levels of corruption and authoritarianism through which we lived before, that it will be a new generation of PRIístas.]

In the meanwhile, Peña Nieto has been off to an energetic start, avoiding some of the gaffes he endured over the winter — indeed, he has been able to outflank the traditionally business-friendly PAN by suggesting more private-sector involvement in — and potentially a public stock listing for — Mexico’s state-owned oil monopoly, Pemex.  On the campaign trail, he has praised the reforms of the Brazilian government in the 1990s to open its similar oil monopoly, Petrobras, to private investment.  Mexico is the world’s seventh-largest oil exporter, producing upwards of 2.5 million barrels per day.

The PRI, even when it held power from 1929 to 2000 in Mexico, was quite slippery about its ideology.  But it is possible that as Peña Nieto moves further to the center-right on issues like Pemex and on law and security, there will be an opportunity for López Obrador to regain some of his support from 2006.  Notwithstanding his razor-thin loss in 2006, López Obrador’s popularity plummeted after his quixotic attempt to protest the 2006 outcome as illegitimate.  Today, López Obrador called for a ‘Plan de Ayala’ for the 21st century to mark the 92nd anniversary of Emiliano Zapata’s death.

With two and a half months remaining in the campaign, it remains possible for Vázquez Mota to surge, especially if López Obrador manages to steal some of the PRI’s more leftist supporters.  She remains the first major party female candidate for president in Mexican history, and her election would mark somewhat of an ongoing trend in Latin American politics, with the recent election and/or administrations of Michelle Bachelet in Chile, Dilma Rousseff in Brazil and Cristina Fernández de Kirchner in Argentina.

Furthermore, Vázquez Mota can benefit both from the powers of the incumbency — the PAN has held the Mexican presidency since Fox won in 2000 — and from her distance from Calderón and the PAN elite that supported Cordero so strongly during the nomination fight. 

With polls showing the PRI likely to hold onto their status as the largest party in the Mexican Congress, Vázquez Mota can also play on doubts about returning to power the party that ran Mexico’s one-party state for so long — although the 10 million new voters in 2012 will likely have fewer memories of the abuse of power of the PRI in the 20th century.

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