Tuesday 28 February 2012

Josefina Vázquez Mota will win Mexico’s presidency

On February 5, 2012, Josefina Vázquez Mota was selected by Mexico’s centre-right National Action Party (PAN) to be that party’s candidate in the July 1 election for the Mexican presidency. There was a lot of hoopla. Vázquez received international press attention as the first female candidate from a major political party to contest the top office.

Vázquez is now running for the ruling party, which broke the seventy-year stranglehold held by the Institutional revolutionary Party (PRI) back in 2000 when the PAN’s Vicente Fox took office. Felipe Calderón then kept the PAN in power when he won in 2006.

Now, in the completely unscientific polling that La politica es la politica is known for, which amounts to a canvassing of Twitter feeds from Mexican pundits, and conversation over Minerva beer with fellow journalists, we can report back with this unstartling finding: other that diehard PANistas, no-one believes that Vázquez is going to win this election.

Here’s why they’re wrong.

The war fatigue is waning

The number one reason the odds are stacked against Vázquez is the present government’s war on drugs. This has put her down double digits in the polls against the PRI candidate Enrique Peña Nieto. Worse, Vázquez has said she will continue the campaign that has, to date, counted over 50,000 lives lost. As La politica es la politica has said before, this is Mexico’s Vietnam, but worse. The numbers are as high as in Vietnam, yet these are all domestic, civilian dead, and in a country with half the population that the United States had during the Vietnam War. The trauma is profound. Many, many innocent people have lost their lives. It is not morally defensible to say that “most of the deaths are gang or cartel members.” The majority of those who have lost their lives are among the “ni-nis” – those with no work or education – and many others have been literally kidnapped into service. For every dead young person an entire network of friends and families has been left broken-hearted. A bereft society can only take so much.

There is some positive news: violence is stabilizing in some areas, and easing in others.

Murders in Ciudad Juarez are at about half the levels of record-setting 2010, when more than 3,000 people died. The first six weeks of 2012 looked even better, indicating a 57% drop in homicides compared to the same period in 2011. And, though the militarization of the drug war has clearly been implicated in increased violence, the recent “Secure Veracruz” initiatives, which involved the use of Mexican Marines, seems to have reduced violence there, too. The richest man in the world, Mexican telecom magnate Carlos Slim, is coming to the rescue of Acapulco, which now has the dubious distinction of being the fourth most violent city on the world (five of the top ten are in Mexico).

This is not all necessarily good news, but there is less bad news these days. The cartels, with the notable exception of the Sinaloa Cartel run by the notorious Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzman, have been weakened. (Perhaps a “June surprise” capture of El Chapo will boost the PAN’s election chances further). And, overall, Mexicans are now less preoccupied with violence than they were in 2011.

On the security front Vázquez has a strong argument against her main opponent, Peña Nieto of the PRI – a message also being pushed heavily by president Calderón, a man now concerned with his own legacy – which is simply this: “What do you propose?” So far, not much. The electorate, therefore, can’t be sure of a better outcome with regard to public security with the PRI at the helm. And Andrés Manuel López Obrador, leader of the left-of-centre Democratic Revolution (PRD), is also somewhat fuzzy. López Obrador wants to pull out of security agreements with the United States and rebuild an autonomous security apparatus. That has its appeal, but hasn’t gained strong public support as of yet.

(For a detailed look at security policies, have a look at: Mexico presidential candidates play it safe with security plans.)

Josefina fits the profile of a successful candidate

Over the past century successful female political candidates have benefitted from three factors: one, underestimation by their opponents until it is too late; two, being tougher, more conservative and, frankly, often smarter and more competent than their male opponents; and three, being connected to powerful men. The third has been a clear advantage to politicians such as Cristina Elisabet Fernández de Kirchner of Argentina, Corazon Aquino of the Philippines, Benazir Bhutto of Pakistan, Hillary Clinton of the United States, and Indira Gandhi of India. These intelligent and competent individuals have all benefitted from being the daughters or wives of powerful politicians.

To not have that third advantage, then, might require one to have a surplus of the previous two. Good examples: Golda Meir of Israel and Britain’s Margaret Thatcher. Both their parents ran grocery stores. (Vázquez also comes from a conservative, middle class business background). They were completely outside elitist circles, and capable of strong action: Thatcher shut down the coal strikers and sent warships to the Falklands; and Golda Meir initiated “Operation Wrath of God”, giving authorization to the Mossad (Israeli secret service) to track down and kill – no matter where in the world they were – those responsible for murdering eleven Israelis athletes at the Summer Olympics in Munich in 1972.

 She might have what it takes

These individuals are not best understood as “female politicians”; instead, they are politicians. They understand power, and how to use it. They won’t argue against what works. So, while Vázquez may comment on male dominance in Mexican culture, and how that makes her job tougher, she won’t complain when the press refer to her as “Josefina”, as they commonly do, and as La politica es la politica did in the heading for this section. Surely, this can be seen as derogatory and belittling to a female candidate, and an indication of gender bias? Perhaps. But just as surely, it humanizes her with the voters, which is desirable. By comparison, the present president, whose full name is Felipe de Jesús Calderón Hinojosa, is referred to by the bland acronyms “FCH”, and the PRD candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador, is referred to as “AMLO”. (For some reason, Kirchner also gets to be called “CFK”). The nicknames for Peña Nieto are best left unprinted.

(For a more in depth look at why La politica es la politica is concerned about a Peña Nieto presidency, see: Pretty-boy Peña Nieto would be a disaster for Mexico.)

The likeable Peña Nieto

It is maxim of sorts that the parents are a worse judge of a son-in-law than are the bride-to-be’s siblings. The kids know the score. In the Mexican analogy, much of country’s ruling classes act as paternalistic arbiters of power. They like Peña Nieto because he is handsome. He is well behaved. He does what he is told to do – which is mostly nothing. This allows business as usual to proceed. He is not well spoken, in that his speech is unintelligent; but he is well spoken, in that his speech is polite. It works at garden parties.

However, when the heat is on – and there are so many examples of this they are tiresome to recount – Peña Nieto comes across as a complete fool. And as a regular citizen who cares about your country, you are not going to want her to marry such a lightweight. In Mexico, if you flick on Televisa (something I try to avoid) you can sometimes find coverage of Peña Nieto that is akin to that afforded to Ricky Martin, whom Peña Nieto disturbingly resembles. Televisa is the second largest media conglomerate in Latin America, and famous for its telenovelas (soap operas). Sadly, Peña Nieto with his jet-boy hair and slick suits is, quite literally, tailor-made for such an audience. He even announced his romantic connection to his now second wife, who is a telenovela actress, on the TV Azteca show Shalalá.

In the old days of the dedazo – the non-democratic internal selection,  or ”finger tap”, of a PRI candidate through backroom politics – the chosen PRI operative would be gifted the presidency of Mexico. Now, things are a little more complicated, and how a party picks its leader is, in many ways, an indication of their viability to run a federal campaign (for our Canadian readers, look at the miserable results of the dedazo selection of Liberal Party candidate Michael  Ignatieff in the last federal campaign).

It’s not really anyone’s business how a political party selects its leader – they are subject to their own rules and policies – but by necessity the process will determine the outcome, and can be seen as a reflection of party values, which the people are then free to judge.  And once that candidate steps out onto the main stage, he or she is supposed to compete in the hard-hitting, wide-open realm of electoral campaigning. If the selection process is tough, as was the PAN’s, then the candidate will be tough. 

 President Peña Nieto? For real?

The PRI, by contrast, is inept at this. The PRI simply opened a clear channel to Peña Nieto’s nomination, with the only other viable PRI candidate, Senator Manlio Fabio Beltrones, handed his marching orders from the PRI establishment. That’s how the PRI does things.  The party has probably only won one election for the presidency of Mexico, and that was in 1994, when Ernesto Zedillo was victorious. In 1988, Carlos Salinas de Gortari “won” for the PRI with 50.7% of the vote, though even former president Miguel de la Madrid has acknowledged that the election was rigged, and that the ballots were later burned to remove evidence. For all elections before that, the fix was in: the elections were as corrupt as any held in the Soviet Union.

We would be remiss if we did not say that, with Calderón at the helm, the PAN “won” the 2006 federal election over the PRD’s López Obrador by a scant 0.56 percentage points. Let’s be clear, in Mexico no one legitimately wins an election by half a percentage point. However, parties that are threatening to the status quo, like the PRD, can easily be robbed by that margin.

Navigating a corrupt system

It is important to realize that the PAN is not a clean political party. It cut its teeth in gubernatorial politics; it knows how the game is played.

In very simple terms and for most practical purposes, in Mexico corruption rises from the ground up. It is not, for the most part, directed from the top down. Consequently, presidential contenders, as well as presidents themselves, are constantly responding to and negotiating with a corrupt system, no matter how clean they may be as individuals. In effect, power can only be brokered, and held, via a kind of “operational acknowledgement” of this reality. Even the most honest Mexican politician has to navigate these waters, and is inevitably in some way “corrupted” by this reality. Which is to say, in Mexico you can’t just get rid of a Richard Nixon, change a few laws, and all will better. If that were true, everything would have be fine after the PRI’s Carlos Salinas de Gortari, one of the sketchiest presidents ever to wear the sash, ran away to Ireland.

 No, in Mexico it is how you engage with corruption that counts.

Very few observers in Mexico have a clearer view of this reality than John Ackerman, a well-respected political analyst at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM). When the scandal broke recently that U.S. court documents revealed that Mexico’s ultra-violent Los Zetas cartels had paid $4.5 million in bribes to buy protection and political favours in Tamaulipas, a state run by the PRI, with present and former governors directly implicated, Mr. Ackerman had a sobering quote:

"This is not a witch hunt, this is the reality: governors and government officials in this country are involved with drug dealers..They are not clean, neither those from PRI nor the PAN."

But why would the PAN not have gone after the PRI governors earlier? Surely there would have been political gain? The reason the government did not initiate probes into the governors sooner, argues Ackerman, is that the PAN needed opposition support in Congress due to its lack of a majority.

(For a more detailed look at the situation with the PRI in Tamaulipas, see: Peña Nieto and his dirty war.)

What does this have to do with Vázquez? It is simply an example of how as a political organization the PAN is more skilled at navigating its way through a corrupt system. The PAN operatives are more aggressive. As a group, they have better tactical skills, and more coherently as an organization than either the PRI or the PRD.

For example, President Calderón felt that Ernesto J. Cordero, his Secretary of Finance, would have been a better presidential candidate for the PAN, because he had business smarts. But Ms. Vázquez won the leadership primary with 55% of the vote. The party came through that tough leadership campaign somewhat a bruised, but still united, and better for it, with Calderón, Cordero, and Santiago Creel (the other leadership candidate) swallowing some pride and showing an impressive amount of party solidarity in declaring their support for Vázquez.

Vázquez then got a minor bump in the polls, which was to be expected. But she has made incremental gains recently, too, and this may very well continue. She is now 16 points behind Peña Nieto, a gap that most people see as unbridgeable, because, after all, this is Mexico – what on earth could happen in four months? Won’t things be exactly the same?

But this past decade has seen big changes in Mexico. Now, a citizen, even a poor one, might actually expect his or her vote to count. Politically, it is a much more engaged and lively culture than it was ten years ago.   Though cynicism is high, with a sluggish economy and legislative gridlock, Vázquez could capture the public’s heart. She is not unduly charismatic, but she is likeable, and highly competent, with experience both in the legislative trenches and at the cabinet table. What happens if she narrows the gap from double digits to single digits? How does the PRI and its leader Peña Nieto respond?

The short answer: not very well. Peña Nieto has been working for the PRI since his mid-twenties, and comes from a family of politicians. He is good cover for the cacique structure of the PRI. He is an agreeable and charismatic person, and had early success as a bureaucrat due to his powers of persuasion. He has run for political office once before, to be Governor of the State of Mexico, which he won in 2005. The initial campaign for the PRI nomination for that race was difficult, in that it required tenacity and resolve. But the gubernatorial election itself was relatively easy. With the PRI machine behind him, Peña Nieto picked up 49% of the vote. However, during this presidential campaign the attacks against him, and particularly the political party he represents, will be furious. As Vázquez continues to rise in the polls – and she will – Peña Nieto will try and hit back via surrogates, because he needs to hold on to his 47% “positive opinion” rating. He’ll attempt to stay above it all, but it won’t work. The PRI campaign has been on a glide path for moths. They are simply not prepared to take their campaign off autopilot, and to engage a serious challenger.

 And let’s not forget, Vázquez won the PAN nomination, even though she was not Calderón’s favourite, for a very good reason: she is an excellent campaigner. When she connects, she is good. Right now 35% of Mexicans have a positive opinion of her, up from only 23% in November. Over the next five months that number will improve as she capitalizes on opportunities to communicate with Mexican people. And as they get to know her, they’ll like what they see. Sadly for him, the same cannot be said for Peña Nieto.

(TE Wilson is the author of Mezcalero, a Detective Sánchez novel.)

Twitter: @TimothyEWilson
Email: lapoliticaeslapolitica [at] gmail [dot] com

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