June 5, 2018
This morning it was not the church bells that awakened me so early, but the blaring loud-speaker from a passing truck with colorful signs on the sides. The voice enumerated the promises of Mauricio Sahui Rivero, PRI candidate for Governor of Yucatán, running mainly against Mauricio Vila Dosal, until recently the enormously popular mayor of Mérida, the city that is home to over half the state’s population. While both are visible on signage everywhere, most polls show Sahui, with a commanding advantage in campaign spending, is trailing. With the election season upon us here in Mexico, it is an interesting time to be an expat and to observe another nation’s electoral process close-up. As in the US, a preponderance of attention in the press is garnered by the race for the presidency, likely the most impactful part of the elections in Mexico.
Mexico’s first Constitution, enacted in 1824, was revoked twelve years later when General Santa Ana became dictator. It was replaced altogether in 1857 with a Constitution that again abolished slavery, ensured rights of assembly, press, free speech, and the right to bear arms. It called for a four-year presidential term. This document was opposed by the Catholic Church whose power and property was severely reduced by it. After the eighth election of the dictator Porfirio Diaz brought about the 1910 Revolution, it was clear a replacement was needed. The most recent Constitution was enacted in 1917, calling for a president to serve a single six-year term, without possibility of re-election.
Mexico has a government with three divisions, similar to the US. 128 Senators are elected for six year terms, and 500 deputies are elected for three-year terms. In 2014 the country enacted significant electoral reform. Beginning with this election cycle, deputies will be able to seek re-election.
The president of Mexico is elected by popular vote, and the highest vote recipient prevails without a run-off. This opens the system to multiple parties, but as a result, no Mexican president since 1988 has been elected with more than 50% of the vote. Until 2000, with the election of Vicente Fox who forged a successful alliance between the PAN and PVAN parties, the PRI held a virtual monopoly on the presidency. Since then, a broad range of political interests have been represented in the candidate field, and coalitions have emerged as the norm.
The current president, Enrique Peña Nieto, a member of the PRI party, was elected with only 38% of the popular vote. He is exceedingly unpopular in Mexico according to polls, and has been accused in the press of extensive corruption. He has been weakened as well by declining relations with the United States which have spurred fears for the economic and social stability of the country. As I speak with citizens here, voter apathy and disgust with the political process is as strong as it was in the last US cycle. Polls show 58% feel Mexico needs a change of economic and security strategies. Many are choosing not to exercise their right to vote, and feel their only choice is the lesser in a field of evils. (In the current cycle, the candidates of the two most largest parties are under investigation for improprieties that include charges as serious as money laundering!) Some people are working assiduously to counteract apathy, and to engage as many as possible in the electoral process. Few seem as yet undecided.
The most interesting aspect of the current race is the front runner, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (AMLO), former mayor of Mexico City, representing the socialist MORENA party which he himself founded. He came in second in the previous presidential race, and contested the vote unsuccessfully. Charges of fraud are already running rampant in the press, so what will happen on July 1st is anyone’s guess. He currently holds a commanding lead at around 46% in recent polls, and his platform has many controversial positions including proposed amnesty and negotiation with the drug cartels. How a MORENA victory would impact international relations concerns many, even some who support AMLO’s positions. Though MORENA currently holds no governorships, they are contenders in four of the nine races currently open.
Here in Yucatàn, a state often ignored but the state that first elected a socialist government in 1921, and a state that with prosperity has become increasingly conservative, the race is pretty wide open. The large number of candidates and the shorter campaign season stimulates healthy debate, so it all feels more like the primaries in the US than the general election where the choices have already been pared down. In Mérida attention to the race has grown as the Gran Museo del Mundo Maya prepares to host the third presidential debate. Posters and banners are everywhere, but state and local races clearly dominate the landscape.
However, the presidential contest seems somehow less relevant here in the independent minded Yucatán, where people are just as likely to proclaim “I am not Mexican, but Yucatecan!” More people with whom I speak are concerned about the mayoral race, and its impact on the area’s booming economy, spurred by strong growth in the real estate, commercial, technology and alternative energy sectors. Many political posters here are already defaced, showing the passion of the competing sides! The air waves are a barrage of ads and the six daily newspapers cover every detail of the races. Campaigners are almost daily knocking on our door to conduct surveys or stump for their candidates, though as expats we cannot be involved in the process in any way. There are as many opinions, it seems, as there are voters. It is indeed a fascinating time!