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Mexican presidential election 2012: The candidates

Allan Wall

The imposing Palacio Nacional in Mexico City
© Lilia, David and Raphael Wall, 2012
Mexico's president takes office in the Palacio Nacional in Mexico City
© Lilia, David and Raphael Wall, 2012

Four candidates are running for President of Mexico, with the winner to be elected on July 1st, 2012. The winner will serve a six-year term, called a sexenio, and each is backed by his or her respective political party or coalition of parties.

Elections in Mexico and the U.S. have both similarities and differences. In order to talk about the candidates, we need to look at the array of Mexican political parties. One must be careful, however, in comparing and contrasting political parties of different countries. Each country has its own political history and particularities, and you can't really shoehorn Mexican political parties into equivalencies with political parties in the U.S., Canada or other countries.

Mexican political parties

In Mexico, there are three principal parties, plus smaller ones which, depending on the election, may or may not make alliances with the larger parties.

Mexico's oldest political party is the PRI, the Partido Revolucionario Institucional. It was founded by the already-ruling post-revolutionary government, under a different name, and ran Mexico from 1929 to 2000, when it was defeated in the presidential election. Yet the party has proven quite resilient and still has a very useful national infrastructure.

The PRI currently controls 20 of 31 state governorships in the country, and as we shall see, may be on the verge of recapturing the presidency.

The PAN, or Partido Acción Nacional, was the first opposition party, founded in 1938 to oppose the monolithic rule of the PRI. The party has had closer links to the Catholic Church than the other, more secular parties.

Through the decades, the PAN struggled to gain a political space for itself, culminating in the party's victory in 2000. In that year, PAN standard-bearer Vicente Fox broke the PRI monopoly on the presidency. Fox was president from 2000 to 2006, and was succeeded by fellow PANista Felipe Calderon, whose non-renewable term is about to run out this year.

The PRD — Partido de la Revolución Democrática — was formed in 1989. The PRD has not yet won a presidential election, though it came very close in 2006. The PRD is very strong in Mexico City, where it has controlled the mayorship ever since the post became an elective one.

In the traditional "left-right" political spectrum, we would put the PRD on the left, the PAN on the right, and the PRI in the middle. Once again, however, we need to be careful about transposing political values from one country to another.

Enrique Peña Nieto

This year, 2012, there are three candidates. Let's take a look at each one, following their ranking in the polls.

PRI: Enrique Peña Nieto

Enrique Peña Nieto is the candidate of the PRI, and its smaller partner the "Green Party", or Partido Verde Ecologista de México. (Twelve years ago, the Green Party ran as an ally of the PAN, so you can see how alliances can change. The PRI-Green alliance is officially known as the Compromiso por México.

Enrique Peña Nieto was born in Atlacomulco in the state of Mexico, often referred to as Edomex. (The state of Mexico lies north of Mexico City, and includes part of the greater Mexico City metropolitan area).

Peña Nieto served as governor of the state of Mexico from 2005 to 2011.

PRD: Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador


Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, commonly referred to by the initials AMLO, is running as the standard-bearer of an alliance of three parties: his own PRD, the "Labor Party" (Partido del Trabajo) and a party called Movimiento Ciudadano.

AMLO was born in Macuspana in the eastern Mexican state of Tabasco and has a long career of activism. From 1996 to 1999, Lopez Obrador served as president of the PRD. From 2000 to 2005, he was the mayor of Mexico City.

In 2006, AMLO was the PRD's presidential candidate. The 2006 election was very, very, close and hard-fought. The PAN's Felipe Calderon edged out AMLO by less than 1% of the vote, only about a quarter of a million votes. Refusing to concede defeat, and insisting he had been robbed, AMLO organized massive protests which continued for several months.

This year AMLO is back for more, hoping to win the presidential election of 2012.

PAN: Josefina Vazquez Mota


Josefina Vazquez Mota, commonly referred to simply as "Josefina," is the candidate for the PAN. She was born in 1961 in Mexico City and has a long record of activism in the PAN. In the 2006 election, she was Felipe Calderon's campaign coordinator.

She has served twice in the Cabinet, first as Secretary of Social Development (2000-2006) and later as Secretary of Education (2006-2009). She has served twice as a representative in the Mexico Congress, from 2000 to 2003 and later from 2009 to 2011.

Nueva Alianza: Gabriel Quadri de la Torre


Gabriel Quadri de la Torre is the candidate of the small Nueva Alianza, or Panal, a party which has existed only since 2005. The party was founded and is run by Elba Esther Gordillo, president of the S.N.T.E. education union.

Quadri, born in Mexico City, is a civil engineer/economist and currently a doctoral candidate in economics at the University of Texas. Not that there's much chance of it, as he's running in low single digits, but what if Quadri won? Would he continue commuting to Texas for his doctoral work while president of Mexico? That could make for some interesting situations.

How are they doing?

According to the polls in mid-June, Peña Nieto is ahead and is the candidate to beat, while Quadri is in 4th place.

The 2nd and 3rd place candidates have reversed. When polling began, the PAN's Josefina was running second, while AMLO was in 3rd, but Lopez Obrador has since passed her up and is now running in second place.

Why is Josefina doing so poorly? One reason is that in this election, the historical relationship between the PRI and the PAN has flipped.

Up until 2000, the PAN was an insurgent party, attacking the PRI for its authoritarianism. But since 2000, the PAN has been the party of the presidency. That means Josefina can't really run as an insurgent candidate if her party has been in power for twelve years.

In contrast, the PRI has a chance to move beyond its historical baggage and present itself as a party of change. Peña Nieto has been capitalizing on economic discontent, and has actually promised that under his presidency, Mexicans will earn more.

Peña Nieto is not the only candidate making promises. All the candidate are making promises, although Quadri, who presents himself as a citizen non-politician, is a little more measured in his promises.

But the main three candidates are making big promises.

AMLO promises 6 percent economic growth with no tax hikes and lowered energy costs.

Josefina promised to capture narco baron Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman.

Peña Nieto promises to reduce homicides by 50 percent.

They're all promising better economic times and better security. And so on…. It reminds me of an old Spanish proverb my wife told me — "El prometer no empobrece. El dar es lo que aniquila." (To promise does not impoverish. To give is what annihilates.) That of, course could, apply to politicians in any country!

Congressional elections are held at the same time

Mexican congressional elections also take place on July 1st, 2012.

In all the hoopla over the presidential personalities, this is often ignored. But really, more attention should be paid to the Mexican Congress. After all, it's highly unlikely that the party that wins the presidency will have a majority in either congressional chamber.

Therefore, whoever wins is going to have to work with Congress to govern Mexico. The correlation of forces in Congress and the relationship with the president has a lot to do with what gets done — and what doesn't get done — in the next six years.




Published or Updated on: June 18, 2012 by Allan Wall © 2012
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