On December 23, 2020, the campaign season for Mexico’s 2021 midterm elections officially kicked off with the announcement that the three major opposition parties — the PRI, the PAN, and the PRD — will be joining together in a common front against the ruling party, MORENA. The coalition, Va por México (“Go for Mexico”), will field candidates in eleven of the fifteen gubernatorial races and around 180 of the 300 single-member electoral districts for the Cámara de Diputados (“House of Deputies”) in an attempt to seize a majority in the lower house and bring the program of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) to a standstill.
In response, MORENA launched an ad that was censured by the National Electoral Institute for supposedly violating campaign rules, causing it to go viral on social media. It is worth quoting in full:
For years, the PRI, PAN, and its allies have had a pact that has damaged Mexico. In 1995, they raised IVA [Value-Added Tax] from 10 percent to 15 percent. In 1998, they approved the bailout of their friends’ and bankers’ businesses with FOBAPROA. In 2006, the PRI helped the PAN orchestrate its electoral fraud. In 2012, many members of the PAN called for a vote for Enrique Peña Nieto, including Vicente Fox. Then, the PRI, PAN, and PRD signed the Pact for Mexico and approved the reforms that affected the entire country. In 2017, they approved the new gasoline taxes and the Interior Security Law. In 2018, they did all they could to prevent the change that Mexico needed. Following their defeat, in 2019 and 2020 they have opposed the advance of the “fourth transformation,” and the reforms that guarantee the right to a pension, scholarships, and the elimination of the fuero [immunity from prosecution for officeholders]. Today, the PRI, PAN, and PRD are finally removing the mask and are joining together in a perverse electoral alliance, demonstrating that they are the same and represent the same interests. We will not allow them to once again betray the people. Let’s remove the tumor of corruption.
Dangerous as it may seem, the “perverse alliance” is in fact a political gift to AMLO. In one fell swoop, it has borne out the accusation he has made year after year, in speech after speech and spot after spot, that the PRI and the PAN have long since morphed into the PRIAN: a two-headed, narco-infiltrated, right-wing entity devoted to spectacular and, at times, bizarre levels of corruption; stratospheric personal enrichment; the for-profit dismemberment of the Mexican state; lethal suppression of protest; and the taking of turns in power in order to maintain the appearance of democracy. And since 2012, the PRIAN has been joined by the sinking remains of the PRD — the once-proud party of the center-left — in a flailing attempt to remain above the 3-percent vote threshold needed to receive public financing.
Opposition Own Goals
The formation of this whiff-of-desperation alliance caps two years in which Mexico’s newly minted opposition has, to put it mildly, failed to shine. Arrogant, reactive, unreconciled to its role, and rabidly indignant at being displaced from power, the nation’s collective opposition — from its media pundits to its hapless, anonymous party leaders — has focused most of its scattered fire on the figure of AMLO instead of delineating any kind of alternative program to address the crises of its own making or engage in the remotest self-critique. On social media, the president is referred to as “El cacas” (“caca” in Spanish being the infantile term for a bodily excretion), or simply “López,” to tar him for having a last name that sounds too common.
One of the opposition’s up-and-coming young lights, Senator Samuel García of the state of Nuevo León, has provoked widespread derision for a series of gaffes, including telling his wife that she was “showing too much leg” on a livestream, lamenting that his father would withhold his allowance as an adolescent unless he played a full eighteen holes of golf, and commending the valuable people who manage to get by on salaries of $40–50,000 pesos (US$2,000–2,500) per month; the median salary in Mexico is around a tenth of that.
In its most concerted rebellion to date, a group of would-be protestors, under the leadership of the erratic businessman Gilberto Lozano, marched to the Zócalo of Mexico City this past fall with the grandiose intention of camping out until AMLO resigned. Citing health problems, however, Lozano quickly begged off, and most of his followers soon did the same, leading to the spectacle of a plaza full of empty tents which, in the winds of October, began careening through the sky in a gusty homage to absentee activism. The “encampment” was lifted a few weeks later, despite AMLO’s offer to hang out hammocks for those who remained. And in one of the coalition’s first forays into public relations, it decided to run an ad on agricultural supports with a stock photo of a white farmer from Turkey instead of one of the millions of possible photos of Mexican campesinos.
The Pullers of Strings
Behind the disarray, however, lurk interests that are much more organized. The two key organizers of the coalition are Gustavo Hoyos, leader of the Employers’ Confederation of Mexico, and Claudio X. González, son of the longtime director of Kimberly Clark Mexico who helped sabotage AMLO’s first presidential candidacy in 2006. A decade later, in 2017, father and son were profiled in an adulatory front-page splash in the New York Times. Penned by Mexico bureau chief Azam Ahmed, the piece breathlessly refers to González père as “a corporate chairman revered in Mexico” and “one of Mexico’s most venerated — and wealthiest — figures in the business world,” and portrays González fils as a heroic anti-corruption crusader. (The family has recently made headlines again thanks to a lavish mid-pandemic wedding featuring guests fraternizing and dancing without face masks.)
With Hoyos and González, fueled by millions from their shadowy network of financiers, running the show behind the scenes, we can expect a reedition of the fake news and smear ops against AMLO — such as 2018’s “Operation Berlin,” which sought to tie to him to Russia, Venezuela, Cuba, or anything or anywhere that would stick. According to the El Universal columnist Salvador García Soto, the González network will give opposition candidates in districts considered winnable $5 million pesos each (US$250,000), an amount more than triple the legal spending limit. One wonders, if this is indeed the case, whether the National Electoral Institute (INE) will do anything to sanction it, or if the New York Times will bother to report it.
In addition to removing uncomfortable ads from the air, the INE has laid out a series of guidelines designed to guarantee equity and impartiality in this year’s campaign. According to director Lorenzo Córdova, the rules create a level playing field and apply to everyone equally, from the president on down. The one person to whom rules do not apply appears to be Córdova himself: in a virtual conference on December 9, he launched a thinly veiled attack on AMLO, deriding populism as an ideology whose logic “is to feed conflict, invent and identify antagonists, enemies, and, on that basis, survive.”
More menacingly, Córdova and his conservative allies are seeking to rush through a change to the formula by which proportional-representation seats are distributed (200 of the 500 seats in the lower house are allotted this way), a move which, if applied in 2018, would have cost the MORENA-led majority some forty seats. Córdova, adding fuel to the fire, announced on January 11 that AMLO’s popular morning press conferences would be banned from the airwaves from April until the June elections, arguing that they constitute “governmental propaganda.” Cordova’s previous attempt to do this during local elections last year was batted away by the Federal Electoral Tribunal, which must do so again: to strip the president of his primary means for communicating with the public — in the midst, moreover, of the pandemic crisis and vitally important vaccination campaigns — constitutes an absurd, anti-democratic overreach that would impair the government’s ability to save lives.
To be sure, protecting against bias in elections is fundamental, especially considering Mexico’s history of executive-branch meddling. But the INE’s measures would undoubtedly enjoy a much higher level of popular support if it (and its predecessor, the IFE [the Federal Electoral Institute]) had not proved itself tactically incapable of preventing fraud, vote buying, and coercion, the triangulation of illicit funds from cartels and would-be government contractors, and the siphoning of governmental funds into campaigns that kept the PRI and PAN entrenched in power long after they had been rejected by voters, including during AMLO’s first two runs in 2006 and 2012.
A Party at Loggerheads
MORENA, for its part, is no stranger to questionable coalitions. In 2018, it allied with Social Encounter, an evangelical party predictably opposed to abortion and same-sex marriage. (The party failed to meet the minimum vote threshold that election cycle, and was dissolved at the federal level.) In the 2021 midterms, MORENA will ally with the Workers’ and Green parties to form the coalition Unidos por un mejor país (“United for a Better Country”). The Workers’ Party — taking a prominent stand on issues such as demanding a referendum to allow ex-presidents to be tried for crimes, and proposing to bring the pension system back under public control — is a natural coalition partner. Not so the Green Party, an opportunistic, one-family franchise that has nothing to do with environmentalism and has functioned as an appendage of the PRI and PAN for nearly the entirety of its existence.
More worrying than these alliances with minor parties are some of the names MORENA has chosen to represent them. In its six years of existence, MORENA has failed to come up with democratic mechanisms to foster member participation in policymaking or, crucially, for choosing party leadership or candidates for office. In an attempt to ward off favoritism, candidates for proportional-representation seats are to be chosen by insaculación, essentially the drawing of names from a hat. While this method has certain advantages, it leaves the ideological convictions of a chosen candidate entirely up to chance rather than allowing selection to proceed by persuasion and debate. Worse still, candidates for single-member districts and powerful offices such as governor are to be chosen by means of an opinion poll, a patently undemocratic process that favors established names at the expense of the fresh voices the party desperately needs.
The use of opinion polls — conducted by private companies with methods that are both opaque and subject to tampering — have produced results that lack legitimacy and thus lead to ongoing disputes. When the party failed to select a party president last fall, the INE stepped in to set up an opinion-poll process open to both party members and “sympathizers.” Three rounds and much acrimony later, Representative Mario Delgado barely edged out Representative Porfirio Muñoz Ledo. Although neither candidate is a particular friend to the Left, the party at least spared itself the embarrassment of being headed by a former president of the PRI (Muñoz Ledo, a former cabinet member under Luis Echeverría, was president of the then-hegemonic party in the 1970s).
In the case of other candidacies, MORENA was not so lucky. In the state of Nuevo León, its candidate for governorwill be Clara Luz Flores Carrales, a twenty-two-year member of the PRI and mayor of the city of General Escobedo, who only left her former party in February 2020. In Campeche, meanwhile, the gubernatorial candidate will be Layda Sansores San Román — a thirty-year member of the PRI and the daughter of a former PRI governor of the state — who jumped through four other parties before landing on MORENA in 2014. The candidates for the states of Chihuahua and Colima, Juan Carlos Loera and Indira Vizcaíno Silva, have both been accused of leveraging their positions as federal “superdelegates” for electoral purposes. And in a late switch in the state of Guerrero, the party has chosen Félix Salgado Macedonio as its gubernatorial candidate, who is plagued by scandals and a troubling history of alleged sexual assault.
The selections in these and other states in favor of candidates from other parties or locally powerful family fiefs have left local activists demoralized and, in many cases, at loggerheads with the party leadership. Regardless of whether MORENA wins these races in contention (and polls show it’s in a strong position to do so), it will be that much harder to make the case that the party is categorically different, at least at the state level, from the other parties stacked up against it.
In just the last few months, the MORENA-majority Congress has passed legislation to raise the minimum wage faster than inflation, reduce commissions on pension accounts, give workers control of their own housing benefit, and curb the operations of American intelligence agencies in Mexico, and it is on the brink of loosening marijuana laws to allow for possession and cultivation. This is work that must be continued and expanded over the next three years after a midterm election victory. But if the party continues to perpetuate the old, discredited practices of Mexican politics, its much-vaunted “fourth transformation” will inevitably come up short. Granted, changing an entrenched political culture is harder than passing a law — or three.
However, it was AMLO himself who repeatedly raised the bar so high for the moral revolution his movement was supposed to embody. Now it has no choice but to follow through.