Mexico: Finance Minister Cordero Goes Wild

Since our report of June 6th, commenting on the presidential aspirations of Finance Minister Ernesto Cordero, recent developments confirm he does indeed plan to compete aggressively in the race for the PAN’s presidential nomination. In recent days, he has weighed in on a number of political controversies unrelated to his ministry, such as the arrest of ex-Tijuana mayor Jorge Hank Rhon. Speaking before a gathering of party members over the weekend, the Finance Minister declared that he had “no doubt” of winning the presidency.

Controversy

After adopting a relatively low profile throughout most of his term as Finance Minister, Cordero has recently made controversial statements lauding economic advances during the PAN administrations. In a pair of speeches on May 31st and June 1st, he stated Mexico had progressed from being a poor country to what he labeled “a middle-income country with a poverty problem.” More recently, Cordero declared that the purchasing power of the minimum wage income bracket had increased over the past decade, reversing declines during the PRI administrations of the 1980s and 1990s.

The bold rhetoric emanating from the Ministry of Finance in recent weeks has generated a wave of criticism from rival politicians and even elements of the private sector. Leaders of the PRI, among them State of Mexico Governor Enrique Peña Nieto, disputed both Cordero’s economic figures and his triumphalist tone, pointing out that poverty remains a serious problem nationwide. The minimum wage in Mexico is approximately US$5.00 per day.

In a rather awkward gesture for a sitting Finance Minister, Cordero then challenged the PRI’s leading presidential hopeful to debate him on the economy. But, Peña Nieto declined the invitation, saying it was not yet the appropriate time to hold such debates. Meanwhile, addressing critics who say he must step down as Finance Minister if he intends seeking his party’s nomination, Cordero has declared he sees no conflict of interest in beginning his campaign while serving in the President’s cabinet, stating that campaigning while in office is “part of a democratic reality.” Nonetheless, he has been widely criticized for his recent pronouncements, which defy a well-established rule in Mexican politics concerning electoral posturing by sitting high-level public officials.

Analysis: Struggling for the Spotlight

Clearly, Cordero’s sudden transformation and spree of controversial statements have quickly earned him the media spotlight. In reality, this seems to be the strategy that his team has decided to pursue in the hopes of quickly positioning him as a prominent candidate with damage control presumably arriving later as stage II.

Needless to say, this is a highly risky bid. The harsh criticism from the political opposition and the media, have already made him an unpopular candidate for the average voter, that did not know much about him to begin with.

For the same reasons, Cordero’s bold rhetoric could undermine his own standing within the party, and therefore harm his chances of winning the nomination.  Similarly, Cordero’s political activism could become a liability for President Calderon’s government. Thus far, the PRI has refused to budge in response to Cordero’s increasingly provocative statements. If the opposition is ultimately provoked, however, the political fallout could effectively open up a new rift between the Calderon administration and the political opposition.

Finally, the Finance Minister’s posturing has already earned him criticism within the MoF, with long-serving bureaucrats bristling at what they perceive as the politicization of the ministry, a previously unseen phenomenon.

Ramifications

At the intra-party level, Calderon’s consent of Cordero’s aggressive campaigning at this pre- mature stage of the electoral calendar continues to generate friction within his own party. Last weekend, former President Vicente Fox reiterated Dep. Josefina Vazquez Mota’s calls for a “level playing-field” among PAN contenders.

As a matter of fact, Cordero’s premature coming out seems to have motivated Education Minister Alonso Lujambio to do likewise, with some initial propaganda in favor of his candidacy starting to emerge this week. While not a serious contender in our view, Lujambio throwing his hat into the ring will add further pressure on the party’s internal selection process (a brief profile of Lujambio is provided below).

Interestingly, the current dynamics within the PAN resemble the early internecine struggle of the PRI in 2005-2006, wherein questionable campaigning by various internal candidates eventually resulted in rancorous infighting and an ultimately disastrous showing at the polls for nominee Roberto Madrazo. So far, the PRI has maintained stern discipline this time around regarding its own internal selection process.

Outlook

As Cordero emerges into the spotlight in the contest for the PAN’s presidential nomination, his aggressive statements regarding national politics and his own candidacy are likely to continue generating attention and controversy. Because none of his gestures so far has actually generated positive feedback, but have in turn damaged his political capital, it remains to be seen whether any subsequent change in strategy could transform the Finance Minister into a likeable candidate.