Mexico’s Elections: Interpreting the Results
By Jorge Kawas
Mexico’s latest state and local elections and their effect on the current drug war were the main themes of the panel discussion hosted by The Nixon Center and moderated by Dr. Robert Leiken, Director of the Mexico Program. The two panelists, Andrew Selee, Director of the Mexico Institute at the Woodrow Wilson Center, and George Grayson of the College of William and Mary, disagreed on whether the latest elections indicated a healthy democratic state or that Mexico’s democracy has been compromised by corruption.
Selee claimed that Mexico’s democracy was the real winner of the recent elections in Mexico’s fourteen states. The election of twelve governors, notwithstanding low turnout in some states, should be counted as a success. However, argued Selee, President Calderon will still face mounting political tension with a divided congress and partisan concerns in state elections in 2011 and in the presidential election of 2012. The Institutional Revolutionary Part (PRI), while winning nine of the key gubernatorial seats, fell victim to surprising victories by ad hoc Left/Right coalitions in the other states, Selee said. These results, Selee argued, counter expectations that the PRI, which ruled Mexico for seventy years, will inevitably return to power in 2012, displacing The National Action Party (PAN). The mixed success of the PRI shattered the narrative of PRI inevitability, said Selee, but provided a certain measure of relief for President Calderon whose tactical alliance with the leftist Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD)—victorious in three states—staved off his designation as a “lame duck.”
Grayson took a more pessimistic view, challenging the notion that Mexico is even a real democracy because citizen participation is limited by Mexico’s rigid no-re-election regime; the absence of popular independent candidacies not chosen in the proverbial smoked filled room by a corrupt dedazo (the direct appointment of candidates); and by the lack of regulation of campaign contributions. As a result, he said, leaders have no incentive to respond to public opinion and are instead beholden to party leaders. Grayson disagreed with Selee’s thesis that Mexico’s democracy is the biggest winner and instead cited the winners as the PAN/PRD coalition, for defeating the PRI in three important states, and the drug-trafficking organization (DTO) Los Zetas, whose murder of a candidate for the state government of Tamulipas reaffirmed their power and depressed voter turnout.
Considering political links to organized crime, Selee mentioned the importance of a social and political base as a means for power, arguing that some DTO’s have been more successful in achieving this (as in the case of the corrupting power of the Sinaloa and Juarez Cartels or La Familia with its strong social base and even religious base), while others like Los Zetas have based their power mainly on intimidation and violent tactics.
On drug policy, the panelists were skeptical that a policy of legalizing marijuana would cripple the cartels. Cocaine and methamphetamines are at least as profitable as marijuana and in any case, legalization would only spur organized crime to diversify into other illegal businesses. One participant, an expert on drug consumption patterns, gave a similar view and added that a change in drug policies in Mexico, not a major consumer of drugs, would have no influence on overall drug trafficking. As for the drug war itself, Grayson said the Mexican army is not doing well, dislikes the fight and is increasingly liable to corruption. Grayson singled out operations in Cuernavaca and Morelos where elite Mexican navy troops were called in to confront and extirpate one Mexico’s bloodiest cartels because the army was too compromised.
Grayson expressed doubt that Mexican institutions were strong enough to tackle organized crime and drug traffickers given the country’s weak democracy. Selee was more optimistic, pointing out that Mexico’s democracy and institutions will strengthen with time. Both experts supported the notion that a return to the old PRI-style of governing is not an option, since organized crime was more powerful than when the PRI was in power and has become harder to contain.