AS/COA Online | Mexico's Electoral Race Takes Shape

As Mexican President Felipe Calderón nears his final year in office, candidates are already lining up at the gate for the 2012 presidential race. On Sunday, current poll frontrunner and ex-Governor of the State of Mexico Enrique Peña Nieto registered as the official candidate of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). This move came two weeks after the left-leaning Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) picked 2006 losing presidential candidate and former Mexico City Mayor Andrés Manuel López Obrador to compete again. Presidents can’t seek reelection in Mexico and the governing National Action Party (PAN) slated its primary for February. Some observers say that flagging support for the current administration coupled with the PAN’s delay in naming a candidate could hurt the conservative party’s chances. Still, campaigns don’t officially get underway until March and, though Peña Nieto polls over 20 points ahead of other candidates, it’s a long race before the country’s three main parties cross the finish line on July 1, 2012.

Known for good looks that draw the nickname “sweetie” from supporters and “male Barbie” from his detractors, Peña Nieto could be the fresh face the PRI needs to recapture the presidency. The party governed for over seven decades until it suffered defeat in 2000, and its leaders are often referred to as “dinosaurs.” Some worry that the PRI party elite controls the 45-year-old politician, meaning his victory would represent a return to the corrupt, autocratic politics of Mexico’s past.

Voters’ concerns aren’t lost on Peña Nieto, who says his candidacy represents change rather than a return to the past. “What I've lived is the more democratic period of competition. I believe we have indeed changed,” said Peña Nieto during a recent U.S. visit. He’s indicated he supports policies that mark significant party shifts, including on major national issues such as energy reform. The PRI is associated with the 1938 expropriation of Mexico’s oil resources, which account for 40 percent of the country’s budget. Despite state-firm Pemex’s production woes, substantial reform efforts have been hobbled by political concerns about privatization. But Peña Nieto has already hinted he supports a constitutional reform to allow private investment in Pemex. Given that the PRI has a larger congressional mandate than the PAN, Peña Nieto may be able to close a deal on energy reform where the Calderón government fell short. Likewise, Peña Nieto seeks security reforms that would see a large-scale increase in police forces and drawdown of the military in the war on organized crime that has become the hallmark of Calderón’s presidency. As in the case of energy reform, Calderón has faced political hurdles in attempting to implement police reform. 

Although he polls well behind Peña Nieto, the PRD’s López Obrador, commonly referred to as AMLO, is his top rival. On November 15, Mexico City Mayor Marcelo Ebrard stepped aside when a poll commissioned by the PRD demonstrated greater support for AMLO. Though AMLO is the candidate with the broadest name recognition in the country, he’s well known—and negatively perceived by many—for his refusal to concede loss following the 2006 vote. At the time, AMLO lost to Calderón by less than 1 percent, and cried fraud. As his website demonstrates, he continues to consider himself the legitimate president of Mexico. It remains questionable whether he will be able to overcome his polarizing image  to lead a party plagued by infighting and win against such a formidable opponent as Peña Nieto.

Still, as contentious as an AMLO candidacy may be, the governing PAN party could find itself in the weakest spot, given that its delay in choosing a candidate threatens party division. With three candidates in the running, the PAN isn’t expected to make a selection until February, during a closed election conducted among 1.8 million active and affiliated members. As the Wilson Center reports, that process has drawn criticism from two of the PAN hopefuls—former Education Secretary Josefina Vázquez Mota and Senator Santiago Creel—who claim the vote numbers are inflated. Critics say the process would benefit Ernesto Cordero, currently polling behind Vázquez and Mota, given that—as Calderón’s top choice—the president will seek to influence party members to back his former finance secretary.

Polls point to Vázquez Mota as the current PAN favorite. However, as an Americas Quarterly blog post points out, she would face an “upstream battle” in the race due to a lack of political experience and media exposure. On top of that, her candidacy could be tainted by flagging support for Calderón’s policies and concern over escalating violence linked to his government’s war on drugs. A November 29 poll by Consulta Mitofsky shows that while the president’s approval rating runs at 54 percent, 81 percent of Mexicans feel the country’s security situation is declining, 82 percent feel the country’s economic situation is worsening, and 65 percent feel that Calderón is losing control of the country. His sister’s November 14 loss of the gubernatorial race in the family’s home state of Michoacan to a PRI candidate is viewed as the latest strike against the PAN’s presidential ambitions.

Learn more:

  • Access a video of remarks by Peña Nieto delivered at AS/COA on November 17.
  • Download Cosulta Mitofsky’s November poll regarding the 2012 election.
  • Explore the Wilson Center’s guide to the Mexican elections. 
  • Follow the candidates on Twitter. Santiago Creel: @SantiagoCreelM, Ernesto Cordero: @ErnestoCordero, Andrés Manuel López Obrador: @lopezobrador_ , Enrique Peña Nieto: @EPN, Josefina Vázquez Mota: @JosefinaVM