The Mid-Term Mexican Elections: What the Results Mean

 

In the de facto referendum on Vicente Fox and his National Action Party (PAN), the latter lost a significant number of seats in the Chamber of Deputies, reflecting the general disillusionment of Mexicans towards the president and a growing contempt for the PAN. The PRI made a stunning comeback in the election, winning not only additional seats in Congress, but also the coveted governorship of Nuevo Leon. The PAN also lost out to the burgeoning parties of the left, specifically the PRD, which all but doubled its legislative tally and must now be seen as a potent new political party. President Fox has signalled that he recognizes that he must change his strategy if his party is to maintain any influence within the Mexican political system. With the new balance, the Mexican Congress and the opposition have the option to continue in a state of gridlock or work towards compromise to ensure that Mexico can experience an economic recovery.  In this report from the Washington-based Council on Hemispheric Affairs, Katherine Wells and Conor Riffle look at the implications of the electoral upheaval.

 

On July 6, Mexicans voted for all 500 seats of the Chamber of Deputies, as well as six state governorships. They knew that although they were not choosing a new president, their decision would determine the future of not only President Vicente Fox and his National Action Party (PAN), but the Mexican political process as well. The election, in which the PAN and Fox were humbled, served as a de facto referendum on the pro-business administration, now halfway through its six-year term. At the time of Fox’s 2000 victory, he was lauded as a genuine national hero for finally forcing the monolithic Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which had single-handedly ruled Mexico for 71 years, to share power. Three years later, Mexico’s three major parties have yet to learn how to work together in Mexico's heavily polarized political purlieus. The president and the new Congress would be wise to realize that Mexico will continue to stagnate if compromise is not sought on key issues such as taxes and the size of the budget deficit.

 

The Election's Impact on Mexico and Latin America

 

What does the election mean for Mexico, the U.S. and NAFTA, as well as Mexico's relations with the rest of Latin America? In fact, it could foreshadow important developments in each of these areas. Undoubtedly, the telling increase of seats by the PRI and the Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD), at the expense of the PAN, cannot be exaggerated. With the PRD already having a traditionally leftist agenda predicated on its firm leftist orientation, and with the PRI calculatedly putting forth a populist strategy aimed at nullifying its self-damaging image of promoting corruption and nepotism, the debate among Mexican politicians already has moved significantly to the left. This transit will also have a very significant impact on U.S.-Mexico relations.

It is likely that the U.S. and Mexico will have much less to talk about in the near future; Washington is already on a slow burn due to what it sees as Mexico's obstructionism regarding the U.N. Security Council's inaction regarding Iraq, its refusal to join in the administration's coalition of the willing, and the flap over Fox's pledge to reevaluate NAFTA's provision regarding tariff-free imports of low price American corn. During a period of economic instability and with his own re-election approaching, it is doubtful that President Bush will be interested in providing substantial reform to existing immigration policy, including the legalization of millions of undocumented Mexicans now in this country.

 

With the all but certain disappearance of the Bush-Fox special relationship, a now weakened Mexican president is likely to bring his administration more into line with such populist governments as those in Venezuela, Brazil, and Argentina. In particular, one can anticipate a Fox-Lula axis that will be as much a matter of substance as of style. This could mean Mexico reemerging--from the fiasco involving former Mexican foreign minister Jorge Castañeda's efforts to intensify his country's ties to Washington at the expense of those with Cuba--as a co-interlocutor with Brazil when it comes to voicing Latin America's regional aspirations. Now, Mexico may shift its interest from a U.S.-led FTAA to MERCOSUR and ties with the EU, and towards a re-emphasis of the importance of the Rio Group as an alternative locus of power, an autochthonous venue for the expression of the Latin American point of view and a possible future replacement for the OAS. Indeed, the presidents of Chile, Argentina and Brazil will shortly travel to London for the Third Way Forum to explore these very issues.

 

Fox’s Failure

 

Fox blames his lack of success on others, from the once-ruling PRI to President Bush. Many Mexicans, however, are beginning to feel that for all his charisma, Fox may not have sufficiently prepared for the daunting job of president. Reform packages on the easing of government control over the electricity industry, the tax code, and indigenous rights have either stalled in the PRI-controlled Congress or passed in watered down versions. Fox’s once promising relationship with the White House is gone. The highly anticipated U.S. immigration package was quickly back-burnered after September 11. Since then, Fox has been unable to re-engage President Bush and instead has resorted to anti-U.S. rhetoric in an attempt to appease his domestic critics. The hollowness of PAN’s campaign slogan, “Get the brakes off change!,” was a pathetic attempt to shift the blame for not having much to show after three years in office.

 

Unfortunately for the PAN, Fox’s personal stature didn’t provide coattails for the rest of the party. In an election with a record low turnout, the PAN was unable to break out of its minority status in the legislature, setting the stage for its likely defeat in the 2006 presidential elections. Although the PRI is still notorious for its corrupt political image and its capacity for violence, it was able to strengthen its plurality in the Chamber of Deputies. The PAN also lost out to the burgeoning parties of the left, specifically the PRD, which all but doubled its legislative tally and must now be seen as a potent new political party. Even more embarrassing for Fox, the PRI won the key governorship of Nuevo Leon, the birthplace of the PAN.

 

The Importance of Consensus

 

Critics charge that Fox will leave office without achieving much beyond his original electoral triumph. While the country is still struggling through the complications involved in implementing a multi-party democracy, one of Fox’s few victories has been in the area of electoral reform. It is an accomplishment that should not be minimized. Today, Mexico is in little danger of returning to the semi-dictatorship of the previous seven decades. Instead, Fox is learning to govern without the Congressional rubber stamp that the PRI enjoyed throughout the entire period of its power. With his initial failed efforts at compromise, Fox met with stiff opposition and gridlock in Congress. Now, with the PAN’s losses, the political process will move farther to the left, and PRI and PRD prospects for major legislative victories are all but certain. The Mexican people have mandated that Fox exhibit a willingness to seek consensus with the opposition. The president seemed to receive this message somberly, but realistically, saying, “If the citizens didn’t vote for a majority, we have the obligation to go about building one together…” This mandate applies not only to Fox, but to the opposition parties as well. With Fox now likely ready to compromise, it is up to the PRI and the PRD to work with him to fulfill their commitment to the Mexican people. Working with an ascendant opposition may be new to Mexico, but Fox and the country’s political establishment must learn quickly or risk further frustrating average Mexicans by denying them the fundamental reforms which they have long been promised, but up to now have rarely seen.

 

The authors, Katherine Wells and Conor Riffle, are research associates at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs. The Council on Hemispheric Affairs, founded in 1975, is an independent, non-profit, non-partisan, tax-exempt research and information organization. It has been described on the Senate floor as being “one of the nation’s most respected bodies of scholars and policy makers.” For more information, see the  web page at www.coha.org; or contact CHA’s Washington offices by phone (202) 216-9261, fax (202) 223-6035, or email coha@coha.org.