Less than two weeks from now, presidential elections are going to be held in Mexico. Three candidates are contesting for the six-year-term presidency, a scenario open to legitimacy crises, as happened last time in the 2006 elections. The margin of difference between the last winner, Felipe Calderón of PAN (the right-wing Party of National Action), and the loser, Andrés Manuel López Obrador of PRD (the left-wing Party of Democratic Revolution), was of only 0.58%. Such a small margin is so unlikely, that López Obrador denounced it as fraud, however dubious his proofs were. Moreover, Calderón won with only 35.89% of the national vote. The upcoming months were of tumultuous social upheaval, as thousands of Obrador’s supporters gathered in the Capital City to reject the results, and even to boycott Calderon´s December 1 swearing-in ceremony. It was a critical moment in contemporary Mexico’s republican history, a crisis it barely survived.
What made possible such an unlikely result, and its corresponding crisis, is Mexico's three-party system. The presidential candidate of the traditionally hegemonic PRI (the political-machine-like Institutional Revolutionary Party), Roberto Madrazo Pintado, scored 22.26% of the votes in the July 2006 elections, making it very difficult for the leading candidate to score a strong majority. The presidential system that forces a winner-takes-all result, makes it very hard for the losers to accept a president with less than 36% of the national vote. In a three-party system, voters split in blocks of more or less one-third of the voting population, making the scoring of an absolute majority, which is almost essential for the stability of a presidential system, very unlikely. In the past, Mexico’s system avoided these kinds of legitimacy crises by the fraudulent hegemony of the PRI. But since the PAN won its first presidential election in 2000, the first president in seven decades not from the PRI, the political arena split into three.
In other countries they avoid the paradox caused by three-party systems with second rounds of ballots, runoffs between the first and second places of the first round ballot. Fourteen Latin American countries have second round ballots in order to determine a clear winner, when there are more than two options that cannot score absolute majorities. This strengthens the legitimacy of the winner, securing stability in the transition between presidents. But this is not the case of Mexico. With the three-party paradox unsolved, there is a possibility that Mexico is heading for another legitimacy crisis in the upcoming elections.
Today, public opinion polls between the candidates vary enormously. But most of them give PRI’s Enrique Peña Nieto a comfortable majority bigger than 10 points and some as big as 25 points from the second place. The second place itself is more ambiguous, as it has been shifting between PAN’s Josefina Vázques Mota and PRD’s legendary López Obrador. Uncertainty in the possible results is the rule, not the exception. There is an aura of inevitability in Peña Nieto’s candidacy, but he is coming from a month of harsh criticism, as an effervescent student movement known as #132, has risen to oppose him in particular, and the PRI’s hegemonic style in general. Also, Vázques Mota has been hammering Peña Nieto for his alleged connections with regional political machines’ bosses and even powerful drug dealers, portraying him as the ultimate corrupted politician. The results show clearly, as his popularity has been shrinking in recent weeks.
But he remains the leading candidate, and for good reasons. His campaign message is amazingly effective, creating an image of responsible and committed public service, empowered by his reputation as the most handsome, youngest and charming of the candidates. This is backed by a strong base of grassroots activists that are spreading his message and personal image, in a successful marketing campaign, which has led a prestigious Mexican magazine, NEXOS, to compare him to a rock star. His message is a clear-cut and straightforward formula he used six years ago to win overwhelmingly the seat of governor of the big state of Mexico, when he was still and unknown politician. Today he is in the threshold of the presidency, partly thanks to his simple, “I know how to commit myself, but more importantly, I know how to fulfill it.” Besides him, old and wore down López Obrador, and timid and uncharismatic Vázques Mota, don’t inspire confidence enough to put him down from the first place.
But Peña Nieto is not invulnerable, and the recent public campaign to discredit him as a corrupt and authoritarian man can hurt his numbers. However, because there is no strong second candidate, being fought between the left-wing López Obrador and the right-wing Vázques Mota, we might see an election split between the three candidates without anyone scoring a strong majority to legitimize the victory. If it leads to another crisis, like it did six years ago, maybe it is time for Mexico to reform the system, and allow second round ballots.