A look at Mexico’s 2012 presidential election, and what it means for the war against the Mexican drug cartels.
While the United States is just starting to brace itself for the 2012 presidential election, Mexico’s 2012 presidential election is already rolling along, and all eyes south of the border are on the pre-candidatos.
In seven months, Mexico votes for a new president. The election will come amid a bloody war against the cartels that has left more than 40,000 dead and 10,000 missing in five years.
The cartels are destabilizing democracy in Mexico, taking control of whole cities and cutting the heads off Mexican citizens while leaving their bodies in piles in the streets. And they’re operating coast-to-coast in the United States.
Below is a rundown of who is in the Mexican presidential running, a look at how they’re looking, and an idea of what they’re proposing for the future of the drug war (hint: they all agree it has a future).
Wait a minute, Mexico has an elected president?
Yeah, let’s just start with some background here.
Mexico has a government and political system structured a lot like our own – political parties, elections, three branches of government, state and federal powers, etc. – though there are some major differences, like the president serves a six-year term without possibility of reelection.
But that doesn’t mean the president has always been freely elected.
Mexico’s elections have historically been a sham run by the country’s power brokers in the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). From 1929 to 2000, the PRI was the only political party to “win” the presidency. The party controlled all state governorships until 1989 and held a majority in both houses of congress until 2000.
But, the historic 2000 election of Vicente Fox, from the National Action Party (PAN), changed all that. In a proud moment for Mexico, the PRI gracefully ceded power and the country began a new chapter.
In 2006, the presidential election was again marred by accusations of fraud, and the following months were one of the most divisive times in recent Mexican history. As the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) candidate, Andres Manuel López Obrador, and PAN candidate and eventual victor, current President Felipe Calderon, fought it out, the López Obrador camp shut down the streets of the capitol and he declared himself the legitimate president. After several months, the courts said they had found inconsistencies in sample recounts, but not enough to merit the vote-for-vote recount López Obrador demanded.
The war has left thousands of mutilated bodies in the streets or mass graves, dominated the news nationally and internationally and left the country grappling with the question of how, or if, they continue to confront the criminal organizations that supply the illegal drugs to their northern neighbor.
It has also transformed relations with the U.S. In what would have been unthinkable 10 years ago, the C.I.A., D.E.A. and retired military personnel, among others, work alongside Mexican authorities in the country. The U.S. has allowed Mexican military to stage operations within the States. Through the $1.5 billion of funds from the Merida Initiative, the U.S. is training and arming the Mexicans to fight the cartels.
Security has become the top concern of the Mexican people.
Ok, so who are our candidates?
Well, we don’t have candidates yet, we have pre-candidatos. The precampañas work a little differently than the U.S. primaries, but are essentially the same concept. The main difference is primary elections are not written into the constitution, and it is ultimately up to the parties to decide how they decide their candidates.
Traditionally, the PRI president handpicked his successor, and the other party heads picked their challengers. More recently, the parties have moved toward open elections, where any citizen can vote, or party elections, in which any registered party member may vote. This year, the PRD candidates have agreed to a nationwide poll to determine who is better suited to lead the party, and the results should be available on November 15. The PRI plans to hold an open election on February 8, 2012. The PAN is using an internal election, scheduled for February 15.
Parties have until February 16 to announce their candidates. The presidential election will be held on Sunday, July 1, 2012.
PRI – After more than seven decades of ruling the country, and nearly a dozen years out of power, the PRI is making a comeback. Since losing the presidency in 2000, the PRI has been rebuilding and rebranding. They regained a functional majority in congress in the 2009 elections, and are considered by analysts and pollsters to be the best positioned to win the presidency.
Enrique Peña Nieto – The PRI found their new face in the 44-year-old heartthrob governor of the State of Mexico, Peña Nieto. He is leading the polls, usually by wide margins and with high approval and name recognition numbers, and will almost certainly be his party’s pick for president.
Peña Nieto has repeatedly said that he would continue the war against the cartels, and not form a pact with them to stop the war. He said on his blog that the government made the correct decision in confronting the cartels, however they have been inefficient.
His plan to decrease violence includes attacking causes like poverty and unemployment, professionalizing the state police to take on the fight, combating money laundering and controlling arms, reforming the justice system and increasing army intelligence gathering abilities.
Manlio Fabio Beltrones – Despite his influence and strong political ties, the Senator from Sonora, who has also served as the Governor of the state and head of the PRI there, is polling in the 5-10 percent range against Peña Nieto. The two have maintained a friendly campaign, trying to keep the party unity intact, but Beltrones has little chance of winning the PRI candidacy.
PAN – The center-right party held the presidency since the fall of the PRI, but their inability to show results in President Calderon’s war against the cartel and the slow economy have put a damper on the party.
Josephina Vazquez Mota –Congresswoman Vazquez Mota has held jobs as the Minister of Social Development and the Secretary of Education, and if selected as the PAN candidate, would be the first female presidential candidate from one of the three major parties. She has recently taken the lead in polls for her party’s nomination.
She has stated that she would also continue the current strategy of direct confrontation against the cartels, but would move into “second phase” in which the focus will be on strengthening justice institutions and the police force, and going after the criminal organizations’ money laundering operations. She has said she wants the army off the streets, but hasn’t said when.
She also recently said that, if elected, she would review the Merida Initiative drug-fighting assistance program with the United States, and cited recent scandals involving the U.S. government encouraging the sale of guns to the Mexican cartels.
Santiago Creel – The Senator who formerly served in congress and as the Interior Minister and has run unsuccessful campaigns for Mayor of Mexico City and the PAN presidential pick in 2006, held an early lead in the polls, but has fallen behind Vazquez Mota for the candidacy.
Creel has been the most critical of the Panista president’s handling of the war on the cartels. He has said that the strategy of direct confrontation should end with the current administration, and, if elected, he would make radical changes to the war. He has proposed a 24-month down period to getting the army off the streets and ending the violence. His strategy includes setting objectives for the war, attacking money laundering, strengthening justice institutions and communication between agencies and setting up a Mexican equivalent of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency.
Ernesto Cordero Arroyo– As a close confidant of the president and member of his cabinet, Cordero is widely viewed as Calderon’s choice for successor, though Cordero’s poll numbers lag behind the other two candidates. He most recently served as the Treasury Secretary and has served, like Vazquez Mota, as the Minister of Social Development. He is seen as an effective bureaucrat and bland politician, and by the time he stepped down from the Treasury, some analysts argued it was too little too late.
Cordero has offered praise for Calderon’s war strategy, and said he will continue on the same course if elected president, along with keeping the Merida Initiative.
PRD – Since narrowly, and poorly, losing the elections of 2006, the PRD has gone into a tailspin. The party is deeply split on their presidential contender, and the split has led the party to botch their own internal elections recently. The party has been trying to gain some sort of unity, and both candidates have said they would back out if the other looked like the stronger choice. The party has polled in the teens compared to the PRI’s 40s and PAN’s 20-30s range.
Andrés Manuel López Obrador – The 2006 presidential candidate who shut down the city when he didn’t win is at it again. AMLO, as he is called here, has served as mayor of Mexico City and commands legions of followers across the country. He is one of the most controversial figures in modern Mexican politics, and though he leads his opponent in the polls, his negative perception numbers double that of his competitor, making him a risky, if popular, pick for the party.
He has said that military assistance from the U.S. is not the answer to the drug war and he would rather see assistance to help the unemployed and that all the money from the Merida Initiative has amounted to almost no help for the country.
Marcelo Ebrard – The Mexico City Mayor is recognized as an effective leader of a progressive city and a skilled politician, but that may not be enough to compete with the heavyweight name recognition of López Obrador.
Ebrard would take a different strategy with the war that would focus on the causes of the violence, like unemployment and poverty. He has also said the country needs to protect civil rights during the fight and that he wants to get the army out of the streets, as well as strengthen the Attorney General’s Office and state police forces. He believes the country will need continued U.S. help to fight the war, though how much and in what form is harder to say.
So you’re saying everyone likes the war?
Despite the many public deaths and recent protest movements against the violence, the war is still popular among the public and politicians.
A September 2011 poll put the percent of people who think the next president should continue the war at 67%, while 27% said it’s time to end the war.
This despite the facts that the majority of Mexicans don’t think the government is winning the war (53% to 26% who say the government is winning), and that the people believe the Army has a deal with the narcos (47% to 42%) while complaints against the army have increased four-fold in the past five years.
An overwhelming 80% of respondents nationwide said they were “very worried” about drug violence, while 1% and 4% said they were respectively “not worried” or “a little worried.” Having the army in the streets is supported by 71 percent of the population.
An odd note there when considering the electoral scene is that in 2010, 47 percent of the people said the origins of the narcotraffic problem are from the PRI era.
So, who are the narcos putting up?
That depends who you ask. President Calderon recently said in an interview with the New York Times that he is worried that if the PRI returned to the presidency, they would return to the old ways of making deals with the cartels. The PRI denied the claims and filed a complaint against the president.
At about the same time, a member of Calderon’s own party, former President Fox, began calling for a truce with the cartels and amnesty for the criminals. The PAN candidates and members immediately distanced themselves from Fox, but the irony was not lost. Calderon has even signaled in recent weeks that the U.S. should support “market-based” solutions – code for legalization.
Meanwhile some analysts say the country can’t turn back to the days when PRI ruled and the cartels stayed silently in the background, even if they wanted to. The country has changed too much.
The cartels have gotten much more violent in their acts and their businesses than the days of the PRI, and have become fractured since the war started. It would be difficult to maintain treaties with the groups – and the treaties would have to be kept secret from the public, which is not as easy as it was when PRI ruled with an iron fist.
A lot remains to be seen, and with both countries holding a presidential election in 2012, a lot is changing in the war against the drug cartels.
Written by Hank Stephenson in Mexico City.