Why Couldn’t the Left Prevail in Mexico?

Enrique Pena Nieto, winner of the recent Mexican presidential election.

Enrique Pena Nieto, winner of the recent Mexican presidential election.

Cross-posted from the Dissent Magazine blog Arguing the World.

In the past dozen years, left parties in a whole lot of Latin America countries—from Argentina to El Salvador—have won elections and taken power. But, so far, Mexico has not joined the list. The country’s most recent presidential elections, held last Sunday, did not change that.

Initial election results show Enrique Peña Nieto of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) prevailing with approximately 38 percent of the vote. (For non-Mexico watchers: the PRI was the party that governed Mexico for some seven decades before one-party rule was shattered in 2000, and it was subsequently thought to be headed for the trash heap of history.)

Progressive Andrés Manuel López Obrador, known as AMLO, of the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) trailed behind Peña Nieto with around 32 percent. Right-wing Josefina Vázquez Mota of the incumbent National Action Party (PAN) garnered only around 29 percent of the vote.

Mark Weisbrot of the Center for Economic and Policy Research had a nice op-ed in the New York Times arguing that the results reflected nearly a dozen failed years of neoliberal economic policies, enacted by two PAN presidents. Weisbrot wrote:

If ever there were an election preordained as a result of economic performance, it would be Mexico’s election on Sunday.

…Commentators, focused on the six-year-old drug war, have largely neglected to note the depth of Mexico’s economic problems. Let’s start with the basics: Since 2000, when the PAN was first elected, income per person in Mexico has grown by just 0.9 percent annually. This is terrible for a developing country, and less than half the rate of growth of the Latin American region during this period—which was itself not stellar. If we just look at per capita growth since the last election, in 2006, Mexico finishes dead last of all the countries in Latin America.

Between 1980 and 2000, when the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, lost control of Mexico for the first time in more than 70 years, the country saw a precipitous drop in economic growth. Before the 1980s, Mexico was growing at a rate that would have lifted the country to European living standards, had it continued.

It is not fashionable among observers, in the United States or Mexico, to mention that Mexico’s economy has performed abysmally for more than 30 years. Starting with the recession and Latin American debt crisis in the early 1980s, the PRI shifted toward what economists call “neoliberalism”: abandoning state-led industrial and development policies, tightening monetary and fiscal policies and liberalizing foreign investment and trade. The North American Free Trade Agreement, which took effect in 1994, was only the most visible example of this transformation.

Of course, not all of these policies were mistaken, but the overall result was an unqualified failure. The same thing happened across Latin America from 1980 to 2000, where gross domestic product, per capita, grew by 6 percent, as compared with 92 percent over the prior two decades.

The failure of neoliberalism provides a compelling reason for why the PAN lost big. But it doesn’t account for why the Left was unable to capitalize on the situation, trailing instead behind the PRI.

There are a few things that can be said about this. First, the PRI was never as dead as some imagined. While many voters and officials fled the party after its hold on presidential power was cracked in 2000, the party was still strong in many Mexican states and remained a major presence in the country’s legislature.

As for AMLO’s failure, Weisbrot points to two factors weighing against left candidates:

Part of the answer may be found in Mexico’s electoral institutions, and especially the ownership of the news media. In 1988, the PRI candidate, Carlos Salinas, was declared the winner over a leftist candidate, Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas, only because of widespread electoral fraud. The 2006 election was too close to call: the PAN candidate, Felipe Calderón, who is now finishing his six-year term as president, was declared the winner by a razor-thin margin, and only after a partial recount, the results of which were never released to the public.

More important, the media, which are essentially owned by a monopoly, were found to have played a significant role in the 2006 elections, more than enough to prevent the most left-wing candidate, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who ran again this year, from winning. With 95 percent of TV broadcasts controlled by just two media outlets with a strong and documented bias against Mr. Obrador’s party, the Party of the Democratic Revolution, a true left-of-center candidate has little chance.

The first point, fraud, is one that AMLO [López Obrador] himself has emphasized—steadfastly maintaining that the 2006 election was stolen from him. Now, there’s no question that Cárdenas was robbed in 1988. (He was leading in the count until a notorious power outage occurred. When the computers came back up, Cárdenas was suddenly behind, never to recover.) However, I covered the 2006 elections from Mexico City, and, while generally sympathetic to the PRD, I never found López Obrador’s charges of fraud to be credible. There was nothing like a repeat of the blatant chicanery of 1988. AMLO’s official complaint was an everything-but-the-kitchen sink attempt to show voting irregularities, yet its charges were still not enough to convincingly demonstrate ballot stealing or other such improprieties on a scale that would have swung the election.

In this case of the current elections, AMLO trails Peña Nieto by a much wider margin than in 2006. So, while the PRI is still perfectly capable of using dirty tricks, it is very unlikely that fraud would account for a large portion of the three-million-vote difference.

The charge of media bias against the left is more compelling. Indeed, this issue sparked the mass student movement (the #YoSoy132 movement) that galvanized Mexican politics in the last months of the election. The movement emerged on May 11, when student protesters rattled the PRI’s Peña Nieto—then the dominant frontrunner—at what was supposed to be a friendly and carefully staged event at a private university called Iberoamericana.

#YoSoy132 organizer Valeria Hamel explains:

Thousands of students protested against him and then uploaded their videos on YouTube. Meanwhile, the media said that the people involved in the protest were “acarreados y porros” (recruited and paid participants to protest) and that his visit had actually been a success. In response, the students involved made a video in which 131 students showed their university credential identifying themselves as protestors and denied what the media claimed….After this, we [students at other universities] knew that we couldn’t stay silent and allow Mexico to continue through the road of destruction. We had to organize ourselves and unite with other students in order to fight towards democratizing the media and fighting its dual monopoly.

The movement went viral, throughout May and June it helped chip away at Peña Nieto’s double-digit lead in the polls, and it contributed to a late surge by AMLO. Had the PRI candidate gone down in a last-minute upset, #YoSoy132 would have been a huge international story, drawing a raft of comparisons to the most successful of the Arab Spring revolutions. Alas, the Mexico City–based insurgency was not enough.

While bias on the part of the country’s two media giants can serve as one explanation for the Mexican Left’s defeat, it can also become an excuse. Certainly, negative reception of progressives in dominant corporate media outlets is not a condition unique to Mexico, and yet left-of-center parties in many other parts of the Americas have overcome this disadvantage. Other factors weighed against the PRD: since the 2006 elections, AMLO—forever insisting that fraud had deprived him of his rightful presidency—had become a more and more polarizing figure. The party itself was divided, and this bade ill for its general election prospects. To use an analogy from U.S. politics: yes, John Kerry was swift-boated, but that does not account for all of his weaknesses as a candidate.

Despite disappointment at the top of the ticket, all was not lost. Over at NACLA, Fred Rosen notes:

Despite AMLO’s (apparent) loss, the election left the PRD with several things to celebrate. The party won a resounding victory in the race for governor of Mexico City (PRD candidate Miguel Angel Mancera received some 63% of the vote); it won governorships in the states of Morelos and Tabasco; and it made significant gains in the congressional races, keeping the PRI from winning an absolute majority in either the Senate or the Chamber of Deputies, and positioning itself to become the country’s principal opposition party.

Being in the opposition, of course, is a familiar position for left parties. But it’s helpful to remember that Mexico is a rare case in Latin America right now, and that progressives in far more foreboding circumstances have experienced reversals of fortune in the course of a single presidential term. The hope that this could happen for the United States’s southern neighbors is not entirely fanciful. Here’s looking to 2018.

Mark Engler is a senior analyst with Foreign Policy In Focus and author of How to Rule the World: The Coming Battle Over the Global Economy (Nation Books, 2008). He can be reached via the website Democracy Uprising. You can follow Mark at his Facebook page.