The Revolutionary Election That Wasn’t

Despite a year of social unrest, this month's Mexican elections mostly preserved the status quo. What happened?

Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto and Queen Letizia of Spain at a state dinner in 2014. Presidencia de la República Mexicana / Flickr

On June 7, Mexican voters went to the polls for the country’s midterm election, with over 2,100 different positions in local, state, and federal legislatures on the ballot.

The election arrived in a year of widespread social unrest in the country. Since the massacre of forty-three students in Iguala, Guerrero back in September, Mexico has witnessed one of the largest protest movements in recent history. There have been marches on the capital, riots around the country, and calls for the impeachment of President Enrique Peña Nieto. Pundits wondered if revolution were at hand. With so much anger directed at the ruling right-wing coalition, many hoped that the Left might “turn outrage into political power.”

They did not. Peña Nieto’s Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) secured 203 seats in Congress, losing a mere 4 seats from its 207 in the 2012 election. Its losses were more than compensated for by the gains of Mexico’s Green Party — an extraordinary misnomer for a corrupt, pro-fracking party — which nearly doubled their total seats to 47. The ruling coalition had little trouble reasserting its majority control of the legislature.

So how did the PRI emerge largely unscathed? How can we explain the fight for a new politics and the vote for the old politics? And why was the Left unable to capitalize on discontent?

The answer is an old one in Mexican politics: clientelism. By and large, Mexicans are not voting based on their opinion of their politicians — a recent survey showed that 91% of Mexicans consider political parties the most corrupt institutions in the country. Instead, they are voting based on local allegiances forged through local promises that have little to do with the actual platform of the party.

With a number of crucial national reforms on the table — including the right to water, housing, and basic security — the decisive role of these local exchanges is both disheartening and dangerous. Mexicans voters exercise little control over the broader direction of the country, even as its economic policy charges toward liberalization, privatization, and deregulation.

In order to challenge these trends, Mexico’s left-wing parties must develop a new type of politics — one that centers less on short-term gifts and favors and more on the benefits of just policy. This, above all, is the lesson of the election: in the victory of clientelism, it is the Left that loses out.

Counting the Votes

Much of the mainstream coverage of the election has depicted a large-scale revolt at the polls. Pedro Kumamoto, a twenty-five-year-old independent candidate who became a symbol of the youth movement for change, secured a seat in a suburb of Guadalajara. Jaime Rodriguez, an independent candidate known as “El Bronco” for his foul-mouthed, everyman cowboy image, won the governorship in Nuevo León. According to Rodriguez, the election of independent candidates constitutes a “second Mexican revolution.” “It’s a sign that you can have a revolution at the polls,” he said following his victory.

Meanwhile, as part of the voto nulo movement, 4.9% of Mexican voters “annulled” their vote completely. Rather than abstaining, they showed up and invalidated their ballot, writing political messages or crossing out the entire ballot. Some public intellectuals advocated the voto nulo as a way to intensify the state’s ongoing legitimacy crisis. Others claimed that the nullified votes — coming largely from the Left — only served to support Mexico’s right-wing coalition. In the end, the 5% share could have constituted its own political party.

Yet the reference to a revolution at the ballot is both overly optimistic and downright misleading. Despite catching so many headlines, there were only two successful independent campaigns. The PRI’s percentage of the vote remained almost exactly at its 2012 level, and it lost only a handful of seats at the federal level. Of the five governorships it held before the election, it retained three and gained another in the state of Guerrero — a perverse outcome for the state where the forty-three students were disappeared.

In fact, the election had less of an effect on the political landscape than almost any midterm election in two decades. In the 2003 midterm election, the ruling National Action Party (PAN) coalition lost 8% of the vote and 56 seats in Congress. In the following midterm election, in 2009, the PAN lost 6% of the vote and 59 seats in Congress. That year, the “annulled” vote — hailed this time around as a symbol of Mexico’s ballot-box revolution — was even higher, at 5.39%.

Even “El Bronco,” that much ballyhooed avatar of change, has dubious reform credentials. Cowboy hats and crude language aside, Rodriguez spent thirty years inside the PRI. While he claims to have rejected the party — or “puked it up,” as he phrased it — there is no evidence that his independence will inform his administration’s daily politics.

In fact, there is little indication that independence curtails clientelism. The Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD), Mexico’s largest left-wing party, also sought to break the party hierarchy. They offered significant local autonomy to participating factions. Their independence, however, did not prevent the emergence of clientelism. On the contrary, it only encouraged clientelism, without the accountability afforded by the PRI’s centralized party control.

The prospects for change following this week’s election appear slim. The machine of clientelism succeeded in drawing voter support for ruling coalition. And the “revolution” of independent candidacy offers little hope for a broader transformation of Mexican politics.

From Citizen to Client

Clientelism in Mexico follows a regular pattern. First, political parties send their brokers — most of whom are aspiring politicians themselves — door-to-door to collect neighborhood grievances. Some residents are concerned about security; others are upset about the cost of water. Reporting back to the local representative, brokers and their parties then develop a strategy for each community. They may pledge to install streetlights to enhance neighborhood security, or most commonly, offer small gifts of 200 or 300 pesos — known as dispensas — to attract local support.

The gift-giving intensifies around election time. This year, for example, the PRI launched a massive campaign to distribute over 10 million free TVs through a network of local brokers — one guaranteed vote, one free television. The Green Party, for its part, offered thousands of free movie tickets in order to attract support. In Mexico City, the party even distributed goodie packs to its mailing lists, with a backpack, a watch, pencils, and notebooks inside.

Such vote-buying efforts are technically illegal. But the regulation of clientelism in Mexico is almost exclusively ex-post. The National Election Commission has castigated the Green Party time and again for its free giveaways, but the party simply finds new and creative ways to buy support ahead of the regulatory curve. And it paid off. The Green Party extended its congressional reach from 33 to 48 seats in the midterm election.

Yet the fiercest form of clientelism — and perhaps the most pervasive — emerges in the exchange between community organizations and the parties. Many local organizations in Mexico have ties to the ruling political parties, often a result of community leaders’ entry into the party.

These links serve as powerful nexuses of welfare provision. Political parties will offer the organization access to new land, for example, in exchange for the support of the new residents that will populate it. In order to receive plots, residents are expected to attend rallies and vote for the local candidate. Clientelism becomes more than a mere handout — it is deeply tied to major welfare outcomes.

In addition, community leaders often bargain for themselves, not their communities. And participation in the clientelistic exchange becomes coercive. In the irregular settlements along the periphery of Mexico City — where community organizations are extremely powerful, as tenure rights are extremely weak — many organizations have threatened to evict their members if they failed to show vocal support leading up to the elections.

This coercive quid pro quo is what separates normal democratic politics from Mexico’s pernicious clientelism. Rather than advancing collective welfare in the form of new rights, clientelism supports only individual welfare in the form of short-term payouts. Collective identities fragment into local ones. The fight for systemic, long-term change becomes a bargain for cheap, short-term gains.

Today, as the national situation in Mexico continues to worsen — with simultaneous crises of drugs, water, and housing — why hasn’t an alternative emerged? Why hasn’t a citizen movement demanded change? And why haven’t left-wing parties delivered it?

Dissolved Into Clientelism

Through the 1970s and 1980s, the Mexican left appeared to present a viable alternative to clientelism. Following decades of single-party rule, social movements were gathering momentum around the country. Led by mass leftist organizations like the Revolutionary Organization of the Left (OIR) and the Revolutionary Movement of the Pueblo (MRP), local groups fought for new constitutional rights that would challenge the PRI’s clientelistic regime.

In 1988, following a major split in the PRI, a new political party emerged: the National Democratic Front (FDN). Led by Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas — son of the famous PRI president Lázaro Cárenas, a hero of the Mexican left — the FDN sought to build on the momentum of Mexico’s social movements and take down the ruling PRI.

Cárdenas extended an olive branch to groups like the OIR and the MRP, promising both power and autonomy in exchange for participation. These leftist organizations and their grassroots members sensed a democratic revolution. Dispensing with their customary anti-state militancy, they entered into the FDN’s 1988 election campaign, confident that their participation would not signal cooptation.

While the FDN lost the election — possibly due to widespread election fraud — it formalized the participation of the Mexican left in the PRD. Many expressed skepticism about this shift, as the PRD contained so many elements of the old PRI regime.

Their reservations were warranted. The arrival of the PRD fragmented the social movements that undergirded the Mexican left. A major rift emerged between groups that chose to participate in electoral politics and those that chose to maintain their autonomy. Of the ones that chose to participate, entry into the political system dissolved broad left alliances. According to Kathleen Bruhn, protests among PRD-affiliated organizations fell by 50% when the party took power in Mexico City.

Once inside the party, community leaders began to compete on the same clientelistic bases as their right-wing opponents. Eager to maintain the energy of the democratization movement, the PRD had decentralized party control and opened its ranks to local leaders. But this pluralist strategy backfired. Many local leaders sought personal gain. Their links with the community became vehicles for garnering electoral support, not improving conditions.

The PRD lost its guiding left platform. In its broad coalition, each participating member could form its own current, with little regard for the pro-poor program of the PRD’s founders. As a result, figures like José Luis Abarca — the mayor of Iguala, Guerrero responsible for the execution of the forty-three students — became PRD politicians.

Today, at least at the local level, the PRD and the PRI are largely indistinguishable. They both have networks of brokers, and they both offer gifts and favors to voters. This was the background of the voto nulo movement: what’s the point in voting when the crooks are all the same?

A Cancer on the Body Politic

The story of the Mexican election is certainly grim. But the Left is not as weak as it may appear.

Left-wing parties secured a total of 28.2% of the vote — a higher percentage than in both the 2003 and 2009 midterm elections. These votes are, of course, more fragmented than ever. The PRD now competes for the left vote against the National Regeneration Movement (Morena) — which crushed the PRD in the Mexico City election — and the rising Citizen’s Movement (MC) party. But if these parties can form a unified front, presidential victory in 2018 is in reach.

In order to form this coalition, the Mexican left must rediscover its guiding platform — not competing with itself for the support of clients, but coordinating in solidarity with the needs of citizens.

Clientelism is a cancer on the body politic. Once it is introduced, it infects political culture. It encourages short-term thinking, limits the possibilities for change, and demobilizes citizens that see little point in electoral politics beyond the election season goodies. The PRD’s fall from grace is an excellent testament to this insidiousness. When one party begins to play the clientelistic game, it drags the others along with it.

The cure resides in civil society. Mexico’s democracy has been strongest when its infrastructure of local, non-state organizations has been most robust. Left-wing parties today must focus on reigniting the grassroots movements that have been on the decades-long decline.

The widespread protests following Ayotzinapa sent a clear signal that the grassroots is ready to fight. But that signal was ephemeral. Within only a few months, protests faded, and the political status quo resumed. To turn outrage into political power, left-wing political parties must organize. Local assemblies, town halls, cooperatives — the Left must take an active role in establishing new arenas in which to channel discontent into political mobilization, and support the ones that exist already.

Shifting Mexico’s “apathetic” political culture — in which electoral participation is just 50% — appears intractable. But this apathy is not the result of laziness or false consciousness. It is a resignation to the predetermined politics of clientelism. If the Left can succeed in establishing a grassroots infrastructure for political engagement, it can make the appeal of all those gifts and favors disappear.