How Mexico’s 2012 presidential election brought back the “Institutional Revolutionary Party” and how it divided the country into two: one informed by telenovelas and broadcast news, the other informed by blogs and social networks.
I was taken by surprise yesterday morning when some well-informed American friends had no idea that it was Mexico’s presidential election. As former LA Times Editorial Page Editor Andrés Martínez has written many times, Americans just can’t seem to get interested in what happens south of their border. This despite the fact that Mexico is the US’s third largest trading partner, one in ten Americans are Mexican-Americans, and more than 700,000 Americans live in Mexico.
Even those Americans who proudly declare themselves globalists rarely show interest in what happens south of their border. Somehow it’s not exotic enough, or far enough away. As Oscar Salazar, a Mexican entrepreneur living in New York, pointed out, many more Mexicans have been killed in the past year than Syrians, but coverage of Mexico in the US press has paled in comparison. True, the LA Times and New York Times both covered Peña Nieto’s win on their front pages this morning, but the vast majority of US newspapers did not.
So, with that guilt-invoking introduction, let me play the dreaded part of pundit and offer my analysis of the 2012 presidential election and some ungrounded speculation about what it means for the future.
First, some basic context. Mexicans vote in presidential elections every six years with no re-election. The PRI political party ruled the country for 71 years from 1929 – 2000, famously described by Mario Vargas Llosa as “the perfect dictatorship.” There is a long list of examples of electoral fraud during the PRI’s reign, but the most infamous was the rigged 1988 election, which brought Carlos Salinas to power. Salinas is now one of the most-hated presidents in Mexican history for good reason, but significantly it was under his watch that a truly autonomous Federal Electoral Institute was established. As I wrote yesterday, I generally think that elections are an over-emphasized part of democracy, but the creation of a truly autonomous election authority was the first step to real democracy in Mexico. It meant that in 2000 the PRI wasn’t able to resort to dirty tricks when Vicente Fox of the conservative PAN party was elected president with 42 percent of the vote. Six years later, the Federal Electoral Institute still maintained the respect of most Mexicans when it managed a highly controversial election that was decided by less than a percentage point.
It’s worth emphasizing — and even over-emphasizing — that Mexico today is far more more democratic than it was throughout the 20th century, and that important institutions are in place (notably the Federal Electoral Institute, the Institute for Access to Information, and a strengthened civil society) to protect the gains that have been made. The pace of democratic consolidation in Mexico will likely slow with Peña Nieto and the PRI party in power, but it’s almost unfathomable to imagine Mexico returning to its 20th century ways.
Independent candidatures are not allowed in Mexico (though Jorge Castañeda has a pending case before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights to run as an independent candidate). And it’s notoriously difficult to form a political party. These electoral restrictions mean that there were only three viable candidates representing the three main parties, and one unviable candidate representing the interests of the teachers’ union. Others have written much more about the candidates than I could possibly summarize. The Mexico Institute’s Election Guide is an excellent resource as is Daniel Hernandez’s blog. Wikipedia also has a very decent 2012 election page with lots of useful references and footnotes. For the purpose of this blog post, I’d especially recommend Silvana Paternostro’s profile of Enrique Peña Nieto (Mexico’s next president) at the Atlantic.
What was immediately clear after the party primaries is that young, educated Mexicans weren’t going to get behind any of the candidates. The biggest debate among my circles of friends in Mexico was whether it made more sense to vote blank or vote for the least-worst candidate, which most agreed was the leftist Lopez Obrador.
Lopez Obrador represents the old Latin American left, with his fist high in the air, eager to pick the same fights with the same old enemies. (He spent most of the debates complaining about the corruption and injustice of the past rather than discussing his ideas for the future.) Young, university-educated Mexicans (of which there are more now than ever before) wanted a modern, progressive, and articulate candidate. They wanted to get behind an Obama- or Lula-like figure. Most of them wanted Mexico City’s outgoing mayor, Marcelo Ebrard, who was named “World Mayor” in 2010 by the international City Mayors Foundation. (And if you speak Spanish, this compelling dialog between Ebrard and historian Enrique Krauze will help explain why Ebrard has so many supporters.)
The election got interesting when Peña Nieto was booed out of one of Mexico’s most expensive private universities. Immediately a video of Peña Nieto seeking refuge in a student bathroom, surrounded by dozens of protesting students, went viral online. The next morning Mexico was divided into two. Those who receive information via newspapers, radio, and television heard that “outside infiltrators and opposition supporters” were responsible for disrupting Peña Nieto’s otherwise successful visit to the university. Those who receive information from blogs and social networks saw YouTube videos shot on cell phones of what were clearly upper-class students protesting Peña Nieto and his relationship with the television duopoly.
The students were so upset by how the mainstream media twisted their coverage of the protests that they formed into a movement called #YoSoy132. Both Daniel Hernandez and Damien Cave have excellent summaries of the development of the student movement and its savvy use of online tools.
As always, it is difficult for a leaderless movement to form consensus around its message and demands. Some were adamant that the movement should be against Peña Nieto, others felt it should be for Lopez Obrador, but they all agreed that the real target of their anger is the mainstream media, especially the television duopoly, Televisa and TV Azteca. Television has long been notoriously influential in shaping public opinion in Mexico (see Sallie Huges’ Newsrooms in Conflict: Journalism and the Democratization of Mexico), but never before had the role of the media in influencing election outcomes been discussed so openly and widely. The #YoSoy132 movement created such a buzz through social networks and street graffiti that even Televisa was forced to cover it, though always with a patronizing tone.
A couple weeks ago One the Media published an hour-long feature on the media in Mexico. It was a disappointing treatment from one of my favorite radio programs, and reveals once again how parachute journalism that depends on English-speaking sources almost always produces shallow journalism. Still, the first segment offers a useful introduction to some of the many complications between the media and political process. Unfortunately it doesn’t get into some of the cornerstone issues such as political propaganda cloaked as government advertising, poor regulation of the telecommunications industry (and poor spectrum allocation that prevents competition), and recent allegations that a secret team at Televisa was responsible for promoting Peña Nieto’s campaign in return for a mega-payout.
I hope that On the Media returns to Mexico soon (it’s only a 4 hour flight from Washington DC), and digs into some of the deeper media issues here rather than interviewing the same old sources about the same story of how dangerous it is to be a journalist in Juarez.
So what now? First of all, we can expect that once Peña Nieto takes power in November Televisa and TV Azteca will begin to produce much more favorable coverage of the government, and they’ll be rewarded handsomely. (The civil society organizations behind the monitoring project Publicidad Oficial will be kept very busy over the next six years.)
Many assume that the PRI party will strike a deal with drug cartels that will lead to a reduction in violence and homicides. Whether that happens or not (and there are now so many cartels that I’m doubtful it even can), we can expect to see less coverage of the violence on TV then during the Calderon presidency, and the TV stations will be rewarded for keeping quiet.
Meanwhile, we can also expect the #YoSoy132 movement to continue to organize online in opposition to the ruling party. Citizen media will continue to cover what the mainstream media does not, and they will distribute that information to an ever-growing number of Mexicans that turn off the television and begin consuming their information via social networks on their computers and cell phones. I notice that the majority of taxi drivers who shuttle me back and forth from the airport now have smart phones; a significant change from just a year ago.
In a way, Andrés Monroy Hernandez is right:
If your impression of Mexico is formed through the lens of Twitter, then it is not representative of the majority of the country. Far more Mexicans today are informed by television than the Internet. But the statistic will be reversed by the next presidential election in 2018.
As I have written elsewhere, it is always easier to form coalitions around anti-power than “counter-power.” It won’t be difficult for the #YoSoy132 to sustain a strong movement in opposition to the PRI’s rule for the next six years, but it will be significantly more difficult to form a movement for something that is better.
Here Marcelo Ebrard, the outgoing mayor of Mexico City, has a substantial opportunity. He has six years to show what modern leadership looks like — always listening to suggestions and acting on opportunities to transform discontent into concrete proposals for a 2018 campaign that unites the significant majority of Mexico that is ready for the country to step into the 21st century.
As I wrote in the beginning of this text, it’s notoriously difficult in Mexico to become active in politics without becoming active in a political party. Antonio Martínez wrote an excellent essay (in Spanish) that describes how the #YoSoy132 movement used online tools to circumvent the restrictions that prevent political participation. (For example, only the Federal Election Institute is allowed to organize debates of the political candidates, but the loosely structured #YoSoy132 movement ignored the rule and organized their own debate with three of the four candidates that was streamed live and involved dozens of young, eloquent participants via Google Hangout.) They asked insightful, well-informed questions that reveal their understanding of the many challenges that still prevent Mexico from being a well-run, well-governed democracy. Over the next six years it will be key for them to not only criticize the ruling party, but also to develop and advocate for clear proposals that will improve the country.
In part this can be done online through innovative monitoring platforms like Arena Electoral and ideation platforms like AccionesDF. But it will also require the new generation of young, idealistic leaders to roll up their sleeves and get involved in the dirty world of party politics in order to pass the reforms that will eventually clean up the system. Already this is happening. Some of the country’s smartest young activists have formed a coalition called “Deliberative Democracy” to transform the leftist PRD party from a poorly managed party of dinosaurs to a modern progressive movement with clearly defined ethics and policy positions. If I were Marcelo Ebrard, I’d get in touch with them quickly to ask how to get involved.