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Sunday, 27 May 2018

In Aguascalientes, Mexico's presidential contest is not a "change election"


La politica es la politica is posting  32 articles - one for each state in Mexico, including Mexico City - in advance of the July 1, 2018, presidential election. First up is Aguascalientes.

Given that the total population of Mexico is around 130 million, and that the Mexican president is elected based on the total national vote count (i.e. no anachronistic electoral college, as in the US), it could be argued that the vote in Aguascalientes is of little relevance. But this is “Mexico 32”: every state is getting covered! 

History has shown that even national elections can be nail biters, and shifts in voter preference in a small state like Aguascalientes remain important considerations. The state is divided into 11 municipalities, with the capital city also called Aguascalientes. Located in North-Central Mexico, Aguascalientes is bordered by Jalisco to the south and Zacatecas to the north. The population of the entire state is small, about 1.5 million, with the capital city having about 900,000 souls.


At the presidential level, Aguascalientes has historically divided its loyalties between the centrist Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) and the right-of-center National Action Party (PAN). The traditional left-leaning party, the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), represented about 21% of the popular vote in the last two elections (2006, 2012).

The Economy

Aguascalientes has a higher representation of business interests, with dense industrial activity, and a more solid middle class than in other Mexican states with larger rural populations.  The automotive industry is especially important, with two Nissan factories that, incredibly, can build a vehicle every 38 seconds. These factories can ship to 50 countries from Mexico, with easy access to the critical US market.

Proof of Aguascalientes’ appeal to business was confirmed in February of this year, when the brewer Grupo Modelo, which is owned by the Belgian firm AB InBev, announced that Aguascalientes will now be its operations headquarters for all of Latin America.

The relative safety of the area, as well as its hacienda hotels and baths (“aguas calientes” translates as “hot waters”), means that tourism remains an important economic driver. Maintaining a reputation for safety is critical.

The Players

The federal PRI candidate, José Antonio Meade, is running under an umbrella with the New Alliance (PANAL) party and Mexico’s Green Party (PVEM). The coalition is called “Todos por México” (All for Mexico), but that’s something of an overstatement – Meade has been tanking in the polls, unable to shake his association with the corruption and violence associated with the present PRI government of Enrique Peña Nieto. That said, he might have a slightly more respectable showing in Aguascalientes than at the national level, given that the state has been largely unaffected by the surrounding tumult.

For the purposes of this election, the PAN and the PRD don’t officially exist. Instead they have formed a coalition along with the Citizens Movement party to create a single entity called “Por México al Frente” (which roughly translates as “Mexico First”). If this sounds bizarre – that the right and left sides of the political spectrum have formed a coalition – that’s because it is. It’s essentially a sell-out by the PRD, which was at sea after the departure of its leader Andrés Manuel López Obrador (known as AMLO) to form the National Regeneration Movement (MORENA) as part of a larger coalition called Juntos Haremos Historia (Together We Make History).

Nonetheless, Por México al Frente will likely do well in Aguascalientes. It’s young leader, Ricardo Anaya, is behind in the national polls but is more pro-business and less inclined to anti-US rhetoric than AMLO, which plays well here. Minor local controversies, such as PAN Governor Martín Orozco’s support for allowing judges to decide (depending on each case) whether children under 18 can marry, are likely non-issues at the national level.

More importantly, Orozco has, for the most part, successfully fended off accusations that he has directed state resources to the PAN, and has received high marks for his efforts at professionalizing the state’s security forces while maintaining a relatively low crime rate. Aguascalientes has not been rocked by election violence, and has emerged relatively unscathed from the 12-year drug war, with no recorded attacks on journalists.

That brings us to AMLO, who is riding high in the national polls, even as Anaya chips away at his lead. For many voters in Aguascalientes, AMLO is simply the old PRD – the party that delivered about 20% of the vote in the last two elections, when he was its presidential candidate. This is not a “change election” in Aguascalientes. AMLO’s numbers could grow, but they would be unlikely to crack 25%.

AMLO could also be hurt as he has come to the defense of Alberto Anaya (no relation to the PAN leader), head of the small leftist Workers Party (PT) in Aguascalientes, who is currently embroiled in a corruption scandal. AMLO has claimed that Anaya is suffering from political persecution from the Attorney General's Office. While it’s possible that the Office has a political agenda against AMLO, there is apparently legitimate evidence that funds intended for Child Education Centers were diverted to Anaya’s wife and a former PT leader, Héctor Quiroz. AMLO has been outspoken in their defense, but has not offered pardons. Instead, he has simply claimed that the Attorney General’s Office is engaging in acts of “revenge” and “political reprisals” against the PT, and that these will stop should he be elected president.

Bottom line? The voters in Aguascalientes look likely to favor Ricardo Anaya and Por México al Frente. There may be some splitting of traditional PRI voters, but in Aguascalientes – which has a thriving economy, with better security and less corruption than many other parts of Mexico    there is little appetite for a radical shift. The strategic vote, such as it is, will likely fall more to the right than to the left, representing only a modest bump for AMLO.

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