With the doorstep conversations, leaflet distribution, banner hanging, umbrella gifting, TV coverage and endless photos of raised thumbs, election season in Mexico is an all-consuming affair. Yet what is most striking about the fervent, impassioned campaigning is the sheer lack of politics on show in the run up to the June 7 midterm vote.
In Guadalajara, Citizen’s Movement (MC) candidate for mayor and current favorite Enrique Alfaro uses the slogan “Good Government,” presumably working on the theory that no one would be opposed to the idea. His closest rival, Ricardo Villanueva, of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), is campaigning with the similarly unspecific promise of “Teamwork.” Of course, “Yes We Can” helped Barack Obama into the White House, but in Guadalajara, the empty rhetoric has taken over the entire process, so very few people have any idea about the respective policies of the parties, and debates are devoted to banal platitudes and vilification of rivals.
Nor is this a local situation, it’s a national one. Natalia Juarez, a candidate for federal deputy in Guadalajara, hit the headlines when she appeared wrapped only in a bed sheet for her campaign video. Yet every state in the country seems to have attention-hungry political hopefuls. In Mexico State, the Citizen’s Movement candidate Valentin Gonzalez Bautista is trying up to round up votes with a replica Batmobile. In Guanajuato, National Action Party (PAN) candidate Diego Levya has shot to fame with a commercial in which he sings his name and dances around in long pointy boots. In Veracruz, Deputy Renato Tronco Gomez launched a competition to find a lookalike to attend official events when he was busy.
Mexican politics is often and accurately compared to a circus, and the confusion of all this political crusading is reflected in the electorate. Cars with bumper stickers promoting several rival parties are a common sight.
President Enrique Peña Nieto has the lowest approval rating of any president in the past two decades, with 85 percent of Mexicans in a February poll saying they didn’t trust him. Few citizens take his promise of higher salaries seriously. Yet PRI candidates for the Chamber of Deputies enjoy a national lead of more than seven percentage points, according to a Consulta Mitofsky poll.
Political allegiances chop and change at an alarming rate, as voters react to campaigns that are centered on personality rather than policy.
Candidates revert to familiar archetypes to slander their opponents and play to the fears of the electorate. Right-wing candidates invariably malign leftist rivals as “messianic,” and “insane,” while left-wing politicians spend as much time talking about the dark, mysterious forces behind their opponents as they do about their policies.
Yet despite this circus, with its empty rhetoric and smear tactics, real political ground is at stake on June 7. Five hundred new federal deputies, nine governors and 900 mayors will be brought in following the elections.
In Mexico’s second city, Guadalajara, Enrique Alfaro and the fledgling Citizen’s Movement threaten to bring down the two-party system that has dominated since 1929.
In Mexico City, a traditional stronghold of the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), the National Generation Movement (Morena) is snapping at the heels of established political power. Morena, fronted by former PRD presidential candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, is expected to equal the PRD by winning 24 percent of the local deputy spots. Morena even came out ahead in a Reforma favorable opinion poll, with 29 percent backing Morena and only 27 percent in favor of the PRD.
In the northern state of Nuevo Leon, Jaime Rodriguez Calderon, a former mayor and rancher nicknamed “El Bronco” is threatening to become the first independent candidate to win a state governorship, one of only 31 in the country. His campaign has mostly focused on social media and internet advertising.
The political circus shows no signs of quietening down, and the elections are likely to signal the maintenance of the status quo. Yet pockets of change have developed across Mexico. In the big cities especially, established political power finds itself on the back foot. Social media is playing a key role in communication strategy, independent candidates have found a stronger voice and many frustrated voters are turning to new parties.
The old, authoritarian habits of the 20th century PRI reemerged when Peña Nieto won in 2012. Yet the upcoming elections have already shown that the battle against entrenched political power is well under way.