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Feature 062518 Dominguez

Monday, June 25, 2018

Elections, Polarization and Frustration in Mexico

By Gerardo Domínguez González (openDemocracy)

(Español)

Picking from the best of a bad bunch? 

In Mexico 2018, social and political polarisation transcends ideology and presents itself in the form of status quo vs. anti-establishment.

Speaking more specifically, we find ourselves before a situation that will entail either the continuation of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) in power or the triumph of populism, represented by the National Regeneration Movement (MORENA) candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador.

A survey from the newspaper Reforma from the 2nd of May 2018 shows that people prefer to remove the PRI from government more than they wish for López Obrador to win, due to the fact that they are fed up with endemic corruption that has plagued as much the federal governments of the PRI as it has with the two preceding governments of the National Action Party (PAN). 

Recent alliances between political forces with distinct ideological origins have contributed towards this blurring of ideologies where pragmatism for electoral success prevails.

The MORENA candidate knows how to take advantage of the malaise of Mexican society, which has allowed him to popularise the term “the mafia with the power”, category within which every actor, party, entrepreneur, etc that does not share his views fits into. 

Every alliance formed to attack him, as a result, has only made him stronger. This strength is built upon bitterness over a corruption that has been perceived as feeding social inequality and consequentially has fostered feelings of social exclusion among the population. Currently and unlike 6 years ago, it is not López Obrador who is considered to be a true danger to Mexico but the PRI.

The end of political ideology

Recent alliances between political forces with distinct ideological origins such as Por Mexico al Frente, which brings together the PAN (party considered centre-right) with parties of the left such as the Democratic Revolution Party (PRD) and the Citizen Movement (MC), or the alliance between MORENA and the Social Democrat Party (PES) (right-wing conservative party), have contributed towards this blurring of ideologies where pragmatism for electoral success prevails.

It is worth noting that in local elections, the only elections in which there is evidence of the results of a PAN-PRD alliance, important triumphs were achieved (for example in 2017, the elections for the governor in Nayarit, the majority of local councils in Veracruz, and the 2016 election for the governor of Quintana Roo among many others).

This ideological blurring has opened up a space where populism has flourished. Political parties are no longer informative shortcuts towards decision making. The scenario is one in which the election has been polarised between two candidates, but not two ideologies.

What matters is the pro-establishment and the anti-establishment vote. The battle of party ideologies has been replaced by a battle between different factions that is redefining the political spectrum in Mexico.

We can observe that on one hand, the middle-ground in Mexico has become a place of convergence of proposals under an outline to capture all voters. On the other hand, and paradoxically, radical forces have become strengthened.

The electoral race is polarised between centre-left-right and a radical left that presents many typical characteristics of an irresponsible populism that is nonetheless efficient in capturing the votes of the discontent who are numerous in Mexico today.

In this vein, it could be considered that the electoral race is polarised between centre-left-right and a radical left that presents many typical characteristics of an irresponsible populism that is nonetheless efficient in capturing the votes of the discontent who are numerous in Mexico today.

As in the case of France, there will be a standoff between two candidates who will present two different visions for the country. The nuances will disappear and the surveys will become a type of first round, from which anti-Lopez Obrador voters will congregate around one candidate.

A country of institutions that appears institutionless 

On the other hand, it is worth mentioning that representative politics is increasingly eroded in Mexico. Bitterness has grown over the past few years among a population disappointed with a political elite that has not been renewed in decades and it perceived as corrupt and responsible for the lack of opportunities for social mobility available in the country.

The institutional disrepute is significant: there is no credibility, people feel increasingly less represented and the government faces its lowest approval ratings in the modern political history of Mexico (in March 2018, according to Consulta Mitofsky, president Peña Nieto’s approval ratings dropped to 21%).

The incorporation of the armed forces in the war on drugs without an adequate legal framework to regulate them (the approval last year of the Interior Security Law generated a huge controversy within society due to the fear that continued presence of the armed forces on the streets could generate more violence in the long term), has contributed to the discrediting of institutions such as the navy and the army.

In addition, after the triumph of Vicente Fox in 2000, result of the electoral reforms of 1990, 1993, 1994 and 1996, political parties dedicated an important effort to reinventing the Federal Electoral Institute, (IFE), now the National Electoral Institute (INE) as of 2014, due to the danger that a legitimate and recognised arbitrator represented for opposing interests.

López Obrador played a significant role in this process of debunking of the IFE. The consequence, to this date, has been a series of despotisms committed by the Electoral Federal Tribunal, such as the resolution in favour of independent candidates that did not comply with the requisites to participate in the electoral process. This has ensured that the credibility of electoral institutions has reached a dismal level.

In this respect, a discredited arbitrator constitutes a risk for the stability of the electoral process, the up-and-coming elections included.

The public perception is that democracy does not work due to a long history of inefficient governments who have seen throughout their administrations an increase in violence, poverty, unemployment, marginalisation, a worsening of the economy, etc.

Irresponsible populism on the rise

This situation has fed into the rise of populism in Mexico. There is a lack of collective understanding that the multidimensional and complex problems the country faces cannot be dealt with through simple solutions.

Lies become the most attractive instrument to gain ill-informed and furious supporters. They emphasise political opportunism, with an objective to align themselves with anyone whoever they may be, such as the National Union of Labour and Education (SNTE) one of the most important yet discredited unions of Mexico for example.

It is unlikely that those who historically supported him have changed their opinions. The rest of his support base is comprised of Mexicans frustrated with the previous PRI and PAN governments that have failed to produce desirable results.

Their anti-establishment discourse that is lacking in any empirical basis or solid studies (like that of cancelling the education reform or the construction of a new airport in Ciudad de Mexico) also take centre stage.

The objective is to win, regardless of the cost. On the other hand, the other candidates have been unable to offer an alternative proposal or discourse that can counteract that of MORENA, and they have become entwined in a battle of negative campaigns aimed at discrediting other candidates and spreading lies that do not contribute to the strength of the electoral process or social stability.

The responsibility lies in other hands

In conclusion, the electoral process in such a polarised scenario becomes risky business given than spaces for un-governability are opened up. If the results of the election show a difference of less than two percentage points, and especially if they are against MORENA candidate Lopez Obrador, the probability of social confrontation becomes high.

The other contenders are left only with the option of conforming to the left-centre-right spectrum to capitalise on the anti-MORENA vote.

It is therefore urgent to identify and promote discourses that build bridges and drive a process of depolarisation. However, until this date, the discourse of the presidential candidates has taken the opposite turn.

Unfortunately, it remains clear that this type of discourse will not originate from the candidates. On one hand, polarisation represents the main element of success for the MORENA campaign.

In the light of this situation, the other contenders are left only with the option of conforming to the left-centre-right spectrum to capitalise on the anti-MORENA vote.

Lopez Obrador has become a very attractive option. Additionally, he is a candidate that has been in the game for 18 years, therefore he has a profound knowledge of such matters.

People need not learn more about his personality or his political stance as it is unlikely that those who historically supported him have changed their opinions. The rest of his support base is comprised of Mexicans frustrated with the previous PRI and PAN governments that have failed to produce desirable results.

For this reason, it is unlikely the levels of support for the MORENA candidate will radically change despite the negative campaigns launched against him often comparing him to Maduro or Chavez.

Before such a scenario, proactive discourse that encourages depolarisation will originate from the entrepreneurial classes, the media (including digital influencers), columnists, civil society, electoral bodies and governments, state as much as federal, despite their lack of legitimacy over the past years.

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This article, "Elections, Polarization and Frustration in Mexico," by Gerardo Domínguez González," was first published on June 20, 2018 at openDemocracy.net, under a Creative Commons license.  It is part of the special “Mexico Elections 2018: Depolarization and Disinformation,” produced in partnership with Revista Nueva Sociedad in the framework of openDemocracy's #EleccionesAbiertas2018 project.

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