Mexico’s July 4th State and Local Elections Results: Analysis and Ramifications

On July 4th, Mexico held elections to renew 12 governorships, 14 state legislatures via 284 seats in the Congress, and 1428 mayorships in 14 states. These elections were a testing ground for the country’s largest political forces as they seek to reposition themselves ahead of the 2012 Presidential elections.

The former longtime ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), in an alliance with Mexico’s Green Party (PVEM) captured the gubernatorial chair in nine states: Aguascalientes, Chihuahua, Durango, Hidalgo, Tamaulipas, Tlaxcala, Quintana Roo, Veracruz and Zacatecas. Against the odds, the alliance between the ruling National Action Party (PAN) and the leftist parties of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) and Convergencia, obtained victories in the states of Oaxaca, Puebla, and Sinaloa.

Relevance

For the PRI these electoral results are strategically important as they strengthen the party’s prospects to recapture the Mexican Presidency. With current results, the PRI maintains control of 19 out of 32 federal entities, comprising nearly 60% of the country’s population and more than 65% of the country’s GDP.

For the PAN and the PRD, the victories in Oaxaca, Puebla, and Sinaloa were vital as a matter of survival, but they are also extremely important in symbolic terms. All of these states were considered PRI strongholds. The alliance’s most significant victory was that of Oaxaca, given the importance of the state in terms of size of its population. Before yesterday’s breakthrough, Oaxaca had been dominated by the PRI for 80 consecutive years.

Analysis

The July 4th election results elude any simple interpretations. On the one hand, the results prove that the alliance between the PAN and the PRD was effective in three states. The coalition also came close to victory in Durango; whilst in Hidalgo it greatly helped the parties increase their profile in the state. However, in concrete terms, the results imply no significant change: the PRI lost three states (Oaxaca, Puebla and Sinaloa) but also gained three (Aguascalientes and Tlaxcala, previously governed by the PAN and Zacatecas, previously governed by the PRD).

This report will thoroughly analyze the implications of current election results at different levels.

Ahead of the elections, the creation of the PAN-PRD alliance caused a great deal of friction, both between the PRI and the federal government (with Calderon being regarded as the architect of an alliance designed to block the PRI at all costs—as opposed to remaining a neutral party); as well as within the PAN and PRD, where important actors rejected this unprecedented strategy.

The failure of this alliance (i.e. if the alliance had failed to win more than one governorship) would have portrayed the PRI as practically invincible and suggested that the party’s return to the Presidency was a fait accompli, thereby diminishing the PAN’s influence in national politics and fully decimating the still smaller influence of the PRD. Calderon’s political capital and maneuverability would have been further reduced.

As such, the success of the alliance in the three states has come to revitalize the two parties. However, there are other aspects of the alliance that deserve further consideration.

Winners and Losers

Strictly in terms of the number of states, nothing has changed: of the 12 states that held elections, the PRI started out with nine and won nine in 2010. However, upon more in-depth analysis it is possible to distinguish the balance inclining in favor of the PAN-PRD alliances: The alliance was able to break the grip of the PRI in three important states: Oaxaca, Puebla and Sinaloa. The victories in these states imply a much greater quantity of population, territory and resources than Tlaxcala, Aguascalientes and Zacatecas. Although they won more states than the alliance, the PRI lost eight million citizens.

Yet, at the same time, it is important to highlight that in the states where the alliance won, it did so with former PRI members as candidates—none of these was a long-time Panista, or even a Perredista. Furthermore, elected governors Gabino Cue (Oaxaca), Rafael Moreno Valle (Puebla) and Malova (Sinaloa) are known for having strong ties to non-Panista actors Lopez Obrador, Elba Esther Gordillo and Manlio Fabio Beltrones, respectively.

These factors throw into question the degree of real control the PAN and PRD will command within these states. The above is important in light of these parties need to consolidate their presence in these states ahead of the 2012 Presidential elections.

PRI

Clearly, the great losers of these elections are the outgoing governors Jesus Aguilar Padilla (Sinaloa), Mario Marin (Puebla) and above all, Ulises Ruiz (Oaxaca). Ruiz had aspirations to lead the party after Beatriz Paredes leaves the party presidency in 2011. However his chances have been eliminated following the loss of the state to the PAN-PRD coalition, which is largely attributed to his failings as a governor.

The outcomes of the elections also have broader ramifications beyond the local scene. Within the parties there are leaders, factions and key figures that also won and lost with the election results.

The loss of these three states also affects current Estado de Mexico governor, Enrique Peña Nieto, who will seek to become his party’s presidential candidate in 2012, and who lent his support in these and other states with disconcertingly close results.

The support of a considerable group of governors is a key prerequisite for any politician seeking to gain the presidential candidacy of the PRI. The three losers, (Mario Marin, Ulises Ruiz and Jesus Aguilar Padilla) were close to Peña Nieto and hence their losses mark a blow to his support base within the party. However it should also be noted that Peña Nieto will still benefit from victories in other states where he lent his support and PRI candidates won out.

At the same time the positions of other possible presidential candidates such as Manlio Fabio Beltrones and Beatriz Paredes have been strengthened. The former built up support during these elections, as allies of his won in both Tlaxcala and Aguascalientes.

Overall, the election results are poised to increase competition within the party as Beltrones and Paredes have increased their negotiating power.

PAN

Within the PAN the electoral results heralded an air of triumph. Considering that the PRI seemed poised to increase its number of governorships, and that the electoral alliance with the PRD raised significant doubts, the results represent a more than acceptable outcome. Above all, the PAN’s successes proved the PRI not to be invincible, a much-welcomed result within the party ranks after many analysts had already declared the PRI’s triumph in 2012 to be inevitable.

As a consequence of the alliance’s success, President Felipe Calderon also reaffirmed his power inside the party. By the same token, it is expected that Nava’s power will increase as Calderon hands on more decision-making powers to the young party leader.

Although he is no longer a party-member, interior minister Fernando Gomez Mont suffered a significant setback as he had originally opposed the alliances. It is likely that he will soon resign his post.

The party’s losses in the states of Aguascalientes and Tlaxcala came as no surprise. The loss of Aguascalientes was made a forgone conclusion after the outgoing Panista governor, Luis Armando Reynoso, visibly favored the PRI candidate over his own party’s during the campaign.

PRD

Within the PRD the alliance’s victories were even more valuable than they were to the PAN, considering the party’s poor prospects and waning influence at the national level. As a consequence, party president Jesus Ortega, the main supporter of the alliance, has reasserted control of the party. Conversely, the faction loyal to former presidential candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (AMLO), who opposed the alliance, has been weakened.

Mexico City mayor, Marcelo Ebrard, was also a strong supporter of the alliances. Consequently the success of the alliances has come to reinforce his leadership within the PRD, where he is expected to obtain the party’s presidential candidacy in 2012.

The loss of Zacatecas will without doubt have repercussions for the strength of outgoing governor Amalia Garcia, although it can be argued that her influence was already in decline.

The Road Ahead

In light of the success of their alliance in these elections, the PAN and the PRD have begun discussing the possibility of maintaining their alliance for the upcoming 2011 state and local elections in five states: Guerrero; Nayarit; Michoacan; Baja California Sur and Estado de Mexico.

In these elections, the Estado de Mexico represents the greatest prize. The state is the most important entity nationwide given its economic and political relevance (as the most highly-populated and as recipient of the most federal resources).

The PRI’s success in the Estado de Mexico is of particular importance to Peña Nieto, current governor of the state and likely candidate for the presidency of the PRI. Failure to maintain control in this key state would put a certain end to his presidential ambitions.

Although it is too early to discuss the party’s presidential primaries, tension within the PRI is likely to increase until the results of the election in the Estado de Mexico are known in exactly a year’s time. The competition amongst aspiring leaders could result in divisions and the eventual fragmentation of the party, just as happened ahead of the Presidential and federal elections in 2006.

The Long View

Although much has been made of the surprise PAN-PRD victories, their success should not be overstated. The alliance in fact only managed to stop a further strengthening of the already dominant PRI, which would have been disastrous for the PAN and even more so for the PRD.

A thorough assessment of the new political landscape would be incomplete without considering the great advance made by the PRI in the 2009 mid-term elections. During these landmark elections, the PRI displaced the PAN as the largest party in Congress (falling short of an absolute majority) while the PRD suffered a catastrophic defeat. Similarly, in 2009 the PRI captured five out of six governorships at play at the expense of the PAN – notably the PRI ousted the PAN from Queretaro and San Luis Potosi, two highly important states previously dominated by the PAN. It was also able to reassert its dominance in Nuevo Leon, the most economically important state after Mexico City and Estado de Mexico. The PRD failed to win a single governorship. Thus, with 19 states, the PRI is still the most powerful political force and the prospects that this party recovers the presidential chair are still very high.

As such, both the PAN and the PRD still face very difficult challenges ahead, both at the individual level and also as an alliance in the states where they succeeded.

Finally, it is important to highlight that the alliance between these two parties is pragmatically driven—it was formed with a view to prevent the PRI from increasing its influence nationwide – but doubts remain about its functionality in practice. Consequently the election successes should be seen more as preliminary experiments; the real effectiveness of the alliance remains to be seen and the true test, in the process of governance in Sinaloa, Oaxaca and Puebla will have to be carefully assessed.

Policy Ramifications

What are the likely ramifications of the current electoral results at the policy level?

The recent results are unlikely to change the current dynamics in Congress that have made it near impossible for the PAN and the PRI to reach consensus. I expect that the tension between the PRI and the PAN will continue and is likely to intensify as the 2011 state and local elections approach.

With better coordination between the PAN and the PRD in Congress, it would be logical to suggest that the PRI would be forced to adopt a more conciliatory position in order to avoid being branded as a conflictive political force. However, this does not strictly imply greater consensus in Congress. As the 2012 elections approach is likely that the PRI will continue to distance itself from politically sensitive reforms that could produce a backlash at the ballot (i.e. a comprehensive labor reform or a second generation of energy reforms). At the same time, tensions within the PRI are also likely to result in lack of consensus over sensitive issues.

Even more difficult to predict is the behavior of the PAN and PRD in Congress. Electoral alliances are pragmatic; voting in both chambers is much more complicated as it tends to involve ideological issues that are much more difficult to reconcile. 

For the PAN, greater synergy with the PRD in Congress may only be achieved at the expense of politically sensitive reforms, which will force the PAN to concentrate on smaller scale reforms that might not need congressional support.

Although much needed large scale reforms are highly unlikely given the current climate in Congress, there remains the possibility that the parties reach consensus on significant issues relating to competitiveness (regulatory issues) and security. Although it can be argued that a comprehensive fiscal reform remains a possibility under the current administration, the problem of such legislation resides in the complexity of its components and the lack of commitment to an inevitably long process of negotiation.

The upcoming negotiations over the 2011 Federal Budget Law, which will take place in the second half of the upcoming congressional session (September 1 – December 15), will provide an indication of all three parties’ commitment to reach meaningful agreements in this new and highly competitive political landscape.