Enrique Peña Nieto Elected in Mexico, But Election Shows a Deeply Divided Country


Andrés Manuel Lopez Obrador, the presidential candidate of the Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD) declared that the “last word has not been said” and that he will contest the results, questioning the legitimacy of Mexico’s recent presidential elections. At the same time, the Federal Electoral Institute (IFE) has initiated a ballot recount of more than 54% of the polling places, a huge increase over the 9% of ballots that were recounted in 2006.  However, it is still safe to argue that Enrique Peña Nieto, the candidate of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) is the winner of Mexico’s July 1st presidential election.  Peña Nieto won with 38.1% of the votes, against 31.6% for López Obrador. Josefina Vázquez Mota, the candidate of the National Action Party (PAN) only obtained 26% of the vote, bringing to an end her party’s control of the presidency for the past 12 years. 

What emerges from this election is a country sharply divided by educational level, geography, type of locality, and ideology. A national survey performed by Mexico’s newspaper Reforma during the elections, showed that voters that only have an elementary education,which represented 49% of the total electorate, voted in greater numbers for Peña Nieto (48%, versus 26% for Lopez Obrador, and 24% for Vazquez Mota). In contrast, voters with a middle and high school education, which accounted for 21% of the electorate, and those with a university education, which represented 30% of the electorate favored López Obrador. Support for this last candidate was especially prominent among voters with a university education. 39% of this electorate voted for him, while only 29% voted for Peña Nieto and another 29% for Vazquez Mota. It is precisely this last segment of the population, the one that seems to be the most upset by Sunday’s electoral results, since they perceive Peña Nieto’s triumph as a return to the country’s authoritarian past, and to political cronyism.

Last May, university students organized a social media movement called YoSoy132 (I am 132) that questioned the ways in which the PRI candidate ascended to power from being an unknown politician before 2005, when he competed for the governorship of the State of Mexico, to becoming the front runner in the country’s recent presidential elections: through media manipulation. The movement condemned the role that Mexico’s largest media conglomerates, Grupo Televisa and Television Azteca, had played in his ascendance: for example, by granting him considerably more air time than to the other presidential contenders, or by refraining to air a presidential debate that would not favor him—which after large demonstrations was finally aired.

What they contend has some base: Peña Nieto has, actually, relied on a strong media strategy and on the support of these conglomerates for his political ascendance. During the campaign period they actually did show a clear preference for him, though electoral regulations were able to do very little about it, other than guaranteeing air time for every contending party since otherwise it would have been against free speech. The relevant aspect, instead, is that Peña Nieto’s decision to rely so much on the media responded to new political incentives that emerged from Mexico’s democratization, and that showed how much the country had changed: in contrast to the past, to become a viable political candidate there was the need to persuade the public, more than the need to persuade the will of the PRI’s higher ups or, more precisely, the will of the president.  From early on in his political career, Peña Nieto understood that under Mexico’s new competitive and pluralistic political context it was very important to build a strong media image to win elections, just like in the U.S. In January 2005 when he decided to run for the governorship of the state of Mexico he hired Televisa to help him build a strategy to position himself as a frontrunner candidate. As Carlos Tello Diaz narrates, the strategy, tailored especially for him, focused on selling not his political party, which had a very bad reputation, not the candidate proposals, which had very little content, but his image. Peña Nieto, who was clearly an attractive man, would be sold as a rock star: as somebody handsome, young, warm, and always happy. Along with this image, he was supposed to stick to a simple message that would be presented in varied forms over the years to avoid saturation among the public: that he was somebody committed to fulfill his governmental promises. Hence the slogans, I promise it to you, I sign it to you, and I fulfill the promise, that he used during his campaign for governor; commitment: a government that fulfills his promise, which he used once he held that position; and commitment with Mexico, which he used during his presidential campaign.

Arguing, however, that Peña Nieto has only relied on the media conglomerates and an effective media strategy to win the presidential elections is to simplify reality, even while the YoSoy132 movement makes the right point that Mexico’s media, and especially TV, is highly concentrated and remains one of the country’s greatest obstacles to democratic consolidation. Peña Nieto, also built a strong grass roots base, very much like the political base that American political parties have built in recent decades to mobilize their supporters. It focused less on manipulating and coercing the vote through political bosses, and more on building a group of ideologically convinced hard-core supporters that would help mobilized their own communities during electoral processes, in a configuration that will not depend from the PRI’s traditional corporativist structure, and that was not based on party membership. This base became known as the Fuerza Mexiquense (the force of the Mexican state), and it would become a model that Peña Nieto would export to other states with the goal of supporting the political campaigns of emerging politicians like him: young, attractive, and charismatic. During the following years, this new infrastructure helped his party win at least nine governorships lost to the opposition in recent decades and a larger number of municipal elections. As the PRI advanced in its re-conquest of the national territory, the PAN, that had been since 2000 the largest political force lost terrain: during President Felipe’s Calderón tenure, his party lost at least five governorships to the PRI including Yucatán, San Luis Potosí, Querétaro, Aguascalientes, Tlaxcala, and during the last elections, Jalisco, which it had controlled for the past 18 years. Indeed, the PAN recent electoral debacle is just the latest chapter in a story that unfolded for years.                 

Finally, Peña Nieto’s successful presidential race cannot be explained without focusing on the candidate persona: according to people that have followed his ascendance, he tends to connect with people with great ease, especially during mass events: he allows himself to be touched and kissed by the populace to the extent that his friends and colleagues have alerted him that he is jeopardizing his physical security. His response to this concern according to a close friend: a bullfighter that does not get close does not triumph. I cannot avoid that one day somebody instead of hugging me will stab me.    

His persona is less convincing, however, among educated voters, who look for much more content than the one he and his party, stripped from its post-revolutionary populist ideology and transformed primarily into a new electoral machine, can offer. For this reason, it is not surprising that the members of the YoSoy132 movement were clearly disappointed with the July 1st electoral results and had repudiated them in mass demonstrations; and that a lot of educated voters cast their ballot for López Obrador even while they disliked him personally because of the post electoral conflict he mounted in 2006 arguing that the presidential elections that year in which he was a contender were fraudulent.     

Apart from educational level, Mexico is also sharply divided by geography and type of locality. The results of the recent presidential elections showed that people in the North and West/Center of the country had a clear preference for Peña Nieto, while people in the Center and South had a preference for López Obrador. For this reason, Carlos Elizondo, a Mexican academic has argued that if there was such thing as a Central-Mexican Republic the PRD presidential contender would have won the elections. In addition, there is a cleavage between urban and rural voters. Rural voters favored primarily Peña Nieto (44% cast ballots for him, while only 29% voted for López Obrador, and 26% for Vázquez Mota). The urban vote is a little more complicated to understand. Though Peña Nieto, won the urban vote, his margin with López Obrador was considerably smaller (37% voted for him, versus 34% for López Obrador, and 26% for Vazquez Mota). At the same time the PRD candidate for Mayor of Mexico City, Miguel Angel Mancera, won with 63.34% of the vote, suggesting that the country’s capital has consolidated into a PRD bastion. However, in the past the PAN, which is predominantly an urban political party, has also won a strong support among these voters, though less so in Mexico City.

Finally, the electoral results also showed a country sharply divided by ideology: 50% of all voters that identified themselves with a right wing view, and 40% of those that identified themselves with the political center, favored Peña Nieto, suggesting that the PRI, that used to be a center-left party has come to fill the space that the PAN has left in the right. This also suggests that if this was a stolen election, it was stolen from this last party. In contrast, 67% of all voters that identified themselves with the left voted for López Obrador, consolidating his party’s role as the representative of the left.  

All of the divisions mentioned above demonstrate that Mexico remains a politically divided country. Even if recent reports of vote-buying prove to be true, this will not change much the country’s political reality: there is a Mexico that is more educated and urban, especially in the center of the country, that wants a more active role for the government and that is more progressive on social issues that tends to support a left wing agenda, currently represented by the PRD; while there is another part of the country, less educated, and more rural, or more suspicious of the government that lives in the North and that supports a center-right agenda, part of which was represented during the last 12 years primarily by the PAN, and for now will be primarily represented by the PRI. Overcoming these divisions will require more than fair elections, it will require decisive leadership capable of building bridges among different political views, and help address many of the country’s economic and social inequities that have helped sharpen these gaps. That is what should be expected from the incoming Mexican president. That is what Peña Nieto should do.