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Mexico Update: Election Dispute Settled as New Congress Takes Helm

Mexico's outgoing president Felipe Calderón meets with president-elect Enrique Peña Nieto. (Image: Gobierno de Mexico)

September 10, 2012

On July 1, 2012, Mexico’s voters elected Enrique Peña Nieto as its next president, providing him with a margin of 3 million votes over his closest rival, leftist politician Andres Manuel López Obrador. Peña Nieto’s victory marks the return of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) to power after 12 years. Mexico’s oldest and strongest political organization, the PRI ruled the country as a pseudo autocracy for 71 years during the twentieth century. The PRI’s return, however, has not come without complications. López Obrador, commonly known as AMLO, refused to accept the election results, and on several occasions thousands of anti-Peña Nieto demonstrators marched through the streets in Mexico City to protest his victory. Peña Nieto, who received over 38 percent of the votes in a field of four candidates, will take office in a politically charged environment and with no party holding an absolute majority in Congress. As such, the PRI will need to work with legislators from the National Action Party (PAN) of outgoing president Felipe Calderón—a leader whose economic achievements contrast with his administration’s security struggles—in order to accomplish its policy agenda. AMLO, for his part, refuses to accept Peña Nieto’s victory and has broken ties with his old party in order to start a new political movement.

In this update:

Peña Nieto Confirmed as President-Elect

Although Mexico’s leftist opposition complained of vote buying, voter intimidation, and unfair media influence, the country’s electoral court found no evidence of systemic fraud. On August 29, 2012, Mexico’s election tribunal upheld the results of the country’s July 1 presidential election, ending a formal period of review and allowing the PRI candidate to be officially declared president-elect. Judge Flavio Galvan Rivera told the tribunal: "There is no proof of vote-buying, there is no proof of coercion.” Although López Obrador and his supporters hoped the court would annul the election and mandate a second round, many observers complained that the claims of fraud lacked substance. In a recent blog post for Americas Quarterly, Mexico City-based political consultant Andres Manuel Henao described López Obrador’s case against Peña Nieto as “riddled with technical inconsistencies, gossip, and illogical assertions” and explained that “privately, electoral court officials have opined that AMLO’s case is unsupported and, at best, circumstantial.” Although Mexico’s electoral court dismissed his accusations, AMLO continues to accuse the PRI of using illicit money to buy votes and currying favorable media coverage.

Duncan Wood, a senior advisor at the Woodrow Wilson Mexico Institute, told AS/COA Online that the ruling is simple: Peña Nieto “is officially president-elect [and] there is no way this can be overturned—the decision by the [electoral court] cannot be appealed.” The electoral court’s rejection of AMLO’s complaint frees Peña Nieto from an imposed period of review and allows him to prepare to take office. Following the court’s decision, Peña Nieto announced the names of the advisors who will help prepare him for the move to Los Pinos, Mexico’s presidential office. Although the president-elect cautioned that the list of advisors should not be seen as an indication of his cabinet when he assumes his new role on December 1, senior campaign advisor Luis Videgaray will lead the transition team and is expected to serve as chief of staff or Minister of Finance. 
 
The PRI Leads Congress but Lacks Majority

Mexico’s voters elected Peña Nieto as president but they did not hand the PRI enough legislative wins to secure a majority of seats in Congress. According to figures posted on the official Mexican Congress website, the PRI holds 41 percent of the seats. Mexico’s Green Party, a PRI ally, holds an additional 7 percent. Together the PRI-Green coalition controls 48 percent—just shy of a majority. “The new president of Mexico will also have to work with opposition parties in Congress to pass key reforms in sectors like energy, education, and telecoms,” writes Univision News’ Manuel Rueda.

Concerns remain about rifts both with and within the left. The coalition led by the PRD holds 27 percent of seats. Making matters more complicated, on September 10, AMLO announced that he will cut his ties with the PRD’s coalition and form a new party.  During the first session of Congress on September 1, more than 3,000 members of the largely anti-Peña Nieto #YoSoy132  movement gathered in front of the Senate building to stage a protest. Still, senior PRD leaders have said that they will not attempt a similar performance inside Congress. On August 30, Luis Miguel Barbosa, the leader of the PRD’s bloc in the Senate announced at a press conference that “we are not going to introduce a position of legislative obstruction.” But AMLO’s new party, which is not yet officially registered, may take a more combative stance against the PRI and could also poach senators and congressmen from the PRD’s coalition. Javier Oliva, a political scientist at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, the country’s largest public university, told Reuters: "This is going to have important repercussions [and] will create divisions and a future rupture among the left."

Regardless of whether the PRD and AMLO oppose Peña Nieto’s policies, the PRI will need to work with the PAN to achieve its goals. The two parties often fell short on doing just that under the Calderón government, and concerns about gridlock emerged  when July’s election results left the PRI with a minority. However, the right-of-center PAN’s economic policies overlap with many key PRI policy proposals and the party holds 23 percent of the seats. Together, the parties control 71 percent of congressional votes, and could rally two-thirds majority support for bills that require constitutional amendments. Two of Peña Nieto’s main initiatives, labor market reform and the introduction of private investment into the country’s oil sector, could gain PAN support.

Mexico’s Outgoing President Delivers Final State of the Union

In the final state of the union address of his six-year term, Felipe Calderón focused on explaining the challenges that faced his administration and enumerating the achievements made during his time in office. “What's clear ... is that we've made advances Mexicans should feel proud of,” he said. “Mexico has started along the path toward a life full of liberty and security.”

As he finishes his term, Calderón’s record in economic management is being applauded by a number of observers. In an article called “Sorry Brazil, Investors Prefer Mexico” Forbes.com contributor Kenneth Rapoza explained: “Last year, Indonesia was the little darling of emerging market investors. This year, it’s Mexico.” Mexico outpaced Brazil in terms of economic growth in 2011 (3.9 percent compared to Brazil’s 2.7 percent) and is expected to top Brazil again in 2012. Rapoza cited a report from Nomura Securities, explaining that over the next decade “Mexico is poised to become Latin America’s largest economy, surpassing Brazil, and become one of the emerging markets’ most dynamic economies.”

Although Calderón’s administration can claim achievements in economic policy, security and crime have captured the lion’s share of international media attention. As the country’s president, Calderón is seen as the public face and principal architect for Mexico’s security strategy. Over the course of his presidency, Mexico recorded tens of thousands of organized crime-related murders as well as several assaults on elected officials, dozens of attacks on journalists, and hundreds of attacks against police officers.

In the end, Calderón’s legacy is likely to be defined by how many of his policies are carried over by the next administration. During the president’s final state of the union, Peña Nieto tweeted “Congratulations to President @FelipeCalderon for his 6th State of the Union and for the accomplishments achieved during his term.”