Despite likely fraud, AMLO, #YoSoy132 protests seem destined to fail

It’s been over half a month since Enrique Peña Nieto’s victory in the presidential election on July 1, but the protests against the electoral fraud alleged to have been committed by his party, the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI), continue, however haltingly, especially in Mexico City.

Although the street protests are mostly at the impetus of a student protest movement called #YoSoy132 — it’s a long backstory, but think of it as sort of an ‘Occupy Zocalo’ movement, formed to call for greater electoral integrity and the elimination of corruption in Mexican government.  To be fair, the group has kept up a lot of pressure on the PRI both before and now after the election, especially in light of a scandal, revealed by The Guardian, suggesting a too-cozy relationship between Peña Nieto and Televisa, a top television news source in Mexico.

To be sure, it’s great that #YoSoy132 and other watchdogs will be watching the PRI like a hawk.  Notwithstanding its 12 years in the wilderness, it did control Mexico in a semi-authoritarian grip for seven decades (although I have argued that Mexico’s democratic and civil society institutions are sufficiently robust to withstand the PRI’s return to power, and the PRI may succeed where recent presidents Vicente Fox and Felipe Calderón have failed — in tax reform, on energy reform and on ending Mexico’s war on drug cartels).

Meanwhile, the runner-up in the July 1 presidential race, Andrés Manuel López Obrador (commonly, “AMLO” in the press), the candidate of the Partido de la Revolución Democrática (PRD), has cried foul play — he’s filed a complaint to invalidate the election with Mexico’s elections institute. He’s alleged that the PRI bought votes in the 2012 election and exceeded spending limits.  He’s probably right.

But unfortunately, he lost by between 6% and 7% of the vote.  A lot of folks in Mexico acknowledge that the PRI may have bought a lot of votes in the recent election and probably exceeded spending limits — even the Partido Acción Nacional (PAN), which currently controls the presidency, admits this. But there’s really no substantive legal recourse (just a post-facto fine). The relevant fact is that no one thinks Peña Nieto’s margin of victory is small enough for this to have actually mattered. 

It goes without saying that there’s much overlap between the #YoSoy132 protestors and the AMLO camp. The Mexican left has been burned before (the conventional wisdom is that the 1988 election was stolen from the PRD’s candidate — and there’s a lot of evidence to support that it was), so the PRD is a little paranoid about fraud, and that’s probably not unjustified.

The problem is that AMLO, who narrowly lost the 2006 election to the PAN’s Calderón, protested the loss for about six months, causing all sorts of turmoil politically.  Back in 2006, he even held a mock-inauguration as the “real president,” and in the 2012 campaign, he even filmed ads apologizing for his “sore loser” protests.  So, while he may have a valid point, he does not have much credibility here, especially because it seems pretty clear that EPN won the election on the merits (even if there was some low-level chicanery).

For the record, it’s important to note that the PRI relinquished the governorship of Tabasco for the first time in nearly eight decades in 2012 and accepted defeat to the PRD in Morelos as well.  The PRI only narrowly captured the governorship in Jalisco state (Mexico’s fifth-largest), the PRD retained the Distrito Federal (essentially Mexico City — a jurisdiction that would be Mexico’s second largest state if it weren’t the federal district), and the PRI underperformed in the congressional elections so poorly that it actually lost ground from the 2009 midterms and will only be able to pass laws in Mexico’s Congress with the PAN’s support.

None of that changes the fact of some level of irregularity and the angst among many Mexicans with respect to the PRI’s return to power.

But likewise none of those irregularities should distract from the real gains Mexico has made in developing its democracy (since well before 2000, dating back to the electoral reforms promulgated during Ernesto Zedillo’s administration), and Peña Nieto’s potential to execute some long-needed reforms in Mexico.  Nor should it distract from the fact that Mexico, despite its ills, stands poised to overtake Brazil as Latin America’s leading economy, an enviable position that Robert Looney extolled in  a superb piece in Foreign Policy earlier this week (noting, among other things, that in the midst of such a destabilizing drug war, Mexico managed to grow 4% in 2011, as China and other markets geared toward exporting to the United States have slowed).

Meanwhile, the PRD has only itself to blame for losing the election by not nominating a more moderate presidential candidate.  López Obrador was seen as too leftist and too much a sore loser from 2006, while Peña Nieto reinforced his image as a charismatic candidate who represents a new generation of the PRI — it’s clear that much of the elite who backed the PAN in the 2000s comfortably switched back to the PRI.  Meanwhile, the PRD’s Marcelo Ebrard — currently the head of government of the Distrito Federal — remains the frontrunner in 2018.  We can only speculate about what he might have done in 2012, but I think it’s quite likely would have made a true race of it against the PRI.

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