2016 Election Preview – by Michael Lettieri (TBI)

This Sunday, June 5, thirteen Mexican states will hold local elections. Many of these elections occur against the backdrop of increasing violence and political corruption. According to Semaforo Delictivo, seven of these states are experiencing increasing homicides (Aguascalientes, Baja California, Hidalgo, Oaxaca, Puebla, Veracruz, Zacatecas) and new municipal presidents will be elected in some of the country’s most dangerous cities. Violence has not, however, been a central theme of the election cycle, although it consistently ranks at the top of voter concerns. Corruption, rather, has dominated public discourse, particularly in Veracruz, where serious corruption allegations against both the sitting governor and leading candidates have led to increasing popular disenchantment with politics.

The off-cycle elections will elect new governors, local legislators, and municipal presidents (effectively mayors) in eleven states (Aguascalientes, Chihuahua, Durango, Hidalgo, Oaxaca, Quintana Roo, Sinaloa, Tamaulipas, Tlaxcala, and Zacatecas); Puebla will elect a new governor, Veracruz a governor and local legislators, and Baja California legislators and municipal presidents only. The gubernatorial terms in Veracruz, Sinaloa, and Puebla are all shortened, as the states begin to harmonize local elections with the federal election cycle. Mexico City will also elect delegates to a constitutional assembly to draft the city’s charter, following the political reform that granted the former Federal District a new legal status.

A number of close contests have also produced remarkably dirty politics. This includes typical allegations of ballot tampering and vote-buying in Oaxaca, Hidalgo, Sinaloa, Veracruz, and Baja California, for example. It has also included manipulation of social media through fake news stories on websites designed to resemble legitimate news sources and using deceptive URLs. Legal denunciations of irregularities in at least two close elections—Quintana Roo and Tamaulipas—have already been announced by the leaders of the PRI and PAN respectively, and the Special Prosecutor for Electoral Crimes named Oaxaca, Puebla, Tamaulipas, Quintana Roo, and Veracruz as “priority” states for dealing with irregularities.

While few of the outcomes are likely to present surprises, the overall patterns of this cycle suggests three key points:

1. Violence has had an unpredictable impact.
  • Although many of the states where elections are being held have experienced recent increases in violence, and polls suggest voters are clearly concerned about insecurity, this has not led to candidates proposing radical, dramatic, or even innovative solutions.
  • Neither, however, have voters flocked to hardline candidates. The municipal election in Tijuana, currently second only to Acapulco in number of homicides, presents an interesting case. While former military director of public security there, Julián Leyzaola, has returned to run for mayor, his campaign has failed to gain traction, despite his record as a supposed hard-line enforcer of law and order. Yet if he has a reputation for effective policing, he also has a reputation for questionable respect of human rights. Does his lackluster showing—polls put him between 11% and 14%, among a crowded field—suggest that voters have rejected “mano dura” policies? Perhaps, but perhaps voters are more concerned with economic issues despite violence. In an interview with Zeta, the PRI candidate, René Mendivil did not make security a priority, commenting only that the issue “can not be resolved just by increasing the number of police. Nevertheless, 70 percent of crimes can be prevented. We need to regain the trust of citizens and recover the social fabric.” The PAN candidate, Juan Manuel Gastélum was even more dismissive when discussing criminal organizations, saying “I’m not going to confront them, I’m not in this to fight.” Mendivil and Gastélum are running neck and neck around 21% of voter preferences.
  • In rural areas, insecurity has had more obvious impacts. In Veracruz, the offices of the National Action Party (PAN) were attacked with firebombs. In the “Golden Triangle” region of Sinaloa, Durango, and Chihuahua (all three of which are holding elections) violence has displaced so many voters that electoral authorities have reduced the number of polling stations. In Sinaloa, another ten polling stations will not be installed owing to the threat of violence on election day. While the problems are not as extensive as in Guerrero during elections there last year, it is a reminder that organized crime has significantly undermined democracy in parts of rural Mexico.

2. Corruption of the Dinosaurs

  • In two states, members of powerful political families are leading gubernatorial candidates, and in both cases have been linked to serious corruption allegations.
  • In Oaxaca, Alejandro Murat, son of former PRI governor José Murat, was the subject of a New York Times investigation in 2015 that detailed how he and his family had acquired at least six luxury properties in the U.S. through shell companies and strawman buyers. While the story does not claim any “evidence of wrongdoing” the implications of such extreme wealth, hidden in offshore real estate, is clear. The lingering power of PRI “dinosaurs” and their families in state politics has proven difficult to uproot, even in places with long histories of social and civic activism.
  • In Veracruz, the PAN gubernatorial candidate, Miguel Ángel Yunes Linares (cousin of PRI candidate Héctor Yunes Landa), has faced numerous allegations, including revelations in the Panama Papers that his son had offshore accounts and that the family owns a number of luxury properties that have not been revealed on disclosure forms. The election cycle has also seen the return of allegations linking Yunes Linares to the pedophilia ring exposed by Lydia Cacho in her 2005 book, Los demonios del Edén, though Cacho laments that these claims are less about justice and more about political dirt.
  • In Veracruz, the issue of corruption in the election goes beyond Yunes Linares, as high ranking members of the current PRI administration under Javier Duarte have been implicated in embezzlement and the governor himself has faced frequent, persistent accusations that have compounded the general repudiation of his government.
  • On the topic of corruption more broadly, these elections are the first test of the popular civil society initiative known as “3de3” asking candidates to declare their assets (income, property, belongings), interests (family businesses, board memberships, etc), and proof of tax payment and make those declarations publicly available on a website. These declarations would allow citizens to monitor potential enrichment in office. [A campaign has gathered enough signatures for the 3de3 to be introduced as law in congress and it is currently under debate]. Thus far, only 41 of the 80 gubernatorial candidates have voluntarily filed 3de3 statements, with the highest percentage, perhaps surprisingly, coming from PRI candidates (24.4%), while PAN (22%) and PRD (14.6%) both above independents and MORENA candidates (12.2% each). Nevertheless, there are questions as to the veracity of the 3de3 statements of some candidates. In the case of Blanca Alcalá, PRI candidate for governor of Puebla, she had not revealed an $11-million-peso property owned through a company she claimed a 50% stake in.

3. Feigned Independence

  • The story of the 2015 elections was the triumph of independent non-party candidates, particularly Jaime Rodríguez Calderón, “El Bronco” as governor of Nuevo León. Following his victory, a number of states passed “anti-bronco” laws that complicated the process of launching an independent candidacy – in Puebla, only one independent candidate was able to register, and that required 14 legal injunctions and a supreme court decision. Despite this victory, the candidate, Teresa Aranda, is only polling in the low single digits.
  • The inability of independent candidates to gain traction is a nation-wide phenomenon. Despite last year’s optimism, in this cycle independent candidates have been unable to challenge party candidates, with none polling above 15% and all but one polling at or below 5% of vote intentions.
  • Local independent candidates, like Leyzaola in Tijuana or Ramón Cantú in Nuevo Laredo might prove more able to win, but still face uphill battles and it is unclear whether or not their campaigns can truly inspire a long-lasting change in civic consciousness.
  • Moreover, some analysts have suggested that independent candidacies may receive support from those hoping to split the opposition vote. Broadly, there is a trend away from big opposition coalitions and toward fragmentation. In Tijuana, there are twelve candidates for mayor. In Sinaloa, nine candidates are pursuing the governorship, and none is likely to win a majority.

About Michael Lettieri

Program Officer at the Trans-Border Institute

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