The following post-election report was prepared by Marco A. Morales, a Ph.D candidate in the Department of Politics at New York University. In addition to his graduate work in political science, Morales has also served as a public official under both PRI and PAN administrations, most recently – under the current PAN administration – as Press Counsellor and Spokesman for the Mission of Mexico to the United Nations, and Director General for Political Analysis at the Office of the Mexican Presidency.


The dust has yet to settle after this Sunday’s Mexican election, which has been dubbed the “largest” in history by the electoral authority: nearly 80 million eligible voters, 143 thousand polling booths, 1.2 million citizens manning the polls, 33 thousand electoral observers, 14 thousand journalists covering the election, and a nearly 63% turnout.

It was also the first Presidential election under the rules crafted in the 2007 electoral reform, which aiming at fostering equity, created a series of loopholes and perverse electoral incentives without much improvement (a more detailed analysis of that reform can be found here).

Remarkably, for a country that has been characterized as a “failed state” or one of the “most dangerous countries to practice journalism” because of the ongoing “war” against drug cartels, the 600-pound gorilla never materialized: although there were a few dozen violent incidents at the polling stations, none of them were related to organized crime. Drug cartels had no bearing on the election.


The 90 days of the presidential campaign can only be characterized as “uneventful”. No issue dominated the campaigns, no candidate stood out for their rhetoric, and mostly engaged in negative campaigning against one another. Perhaps the only novelty was the #YoSoy132 student movement that originated to protest against Televisa – the media conglomerate – and, eventually, the PRI candidate. Some pundits claim #YoSoy132 had real influence on the outcome of the election, but that has yet to be proven.

Despite that fact, vote intentions did change throughout the campaigns (see a remarkable poll of polls by Diego Valle-Jones here). Enrique Peña Nieto, the PRI candidate, began the campaign polling in the vicinity of 50% vote intention, only to obtain around 38 percent of the vote. Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the leftist candidate, started his campaign with about 23% of the vote, and got about 32% of the vote. Josefina Vázquez Mota, the candidate of the incumbent (PAN) party started the race with about 28% of vote intention, and got 26% of the vote.

Election Day was a nail-biter for many who had followed polls closely. But come 8PM most exit polls coincided in calling on Peña Nieto as the winner by a large margin. The result was confirmed by a statistical exercise performed by the electoral authority.

Yet, the election is by no means over, at least until the second place admits defeat: the leftist candidate – Andrés Manuel López Obrador – has yet to decide whether to abide by the rules or, as he did in 2006, use other means to attempt to force his way into the Presidency.

Return to the past or back to the future?

The outcome of this election poses three most interesting questions. What does the return of PRI imply? Is the defeat of the PAN candidate a defeat for President Calderón? And, what happens to the left and its candidates?

Of course, the most pressing question for many Mexicans and pundits is: what does the return of PRI means? Will it be a democratic setback – comparable to the much-feared return of Communist parties on Eastern Europe – or will it be a truly protean feat of the “new” PRI adapting to a new democratic reality? Some fear that the return of PRI will mean a democratic setback, while others claim that there is no way that PRI will ever be the autocratic party of yesteryears.

The matter is not black and white, but a (yet) unknown shade of gray. The return of the old PRI as we know it may well be impossible. Yet there are many back doors and old habits die hard, especially in Mexican politics, which might push PRI back to its (authoritarian) comfort zone. So, when push comes to shove, we’ll see what the “new” PRI is really made of.

In any case, we’d need to consider that:

  • Peña Nieto will have obtained around 38% of the vote – just 3% more than his predecessor on the polls – and not the absolute majority that would have been expected some weeks ago. So he comes with a limited mandate.
  • If preliminary results hold, PRI will not have absolute majorities in either the Chamber of Deputies or the Senate, which might induce it to negotiate. That is, PRI does not come with absolute power.
  • Peña Nieto will begin his terms with two thirds of governors from his own party. Not full power but still enough of it to have a strong influence in Congress and other crucial areas.

Yet, the strength of PRI never came exclusively form having congressional majorities or controlling governorships. The (authoritarian) strength of PRI came as well from their practices, and backroom deals. While these can be tampered with by means of transparency and accountability, it is unclear how much current laws can keep PRI under control.

Secondly, pundits and media alike tend to focus on a single interpretation of the votes for the incumbent party candidate: Vázquez Mota’s defeat was the result of a widespread rejection of President Calderón and his “war on drugs”. Certain facts make this conjecture doubtful, or at least underscore the need of a more refined causal argument:

  • Presidential approval remained stable throughout the course of the campaign (Mitofksy), despite a first-time ever prohibition for any type of informational campaigns from the government. What changed throughout these last 90 days was candidates’ vote intention.  So, with a stable approval, other factors – and not approval – must explain the variation.
  • 80% of the population supports the presence of the army on the streets to fight drug traffickers (Pew Global Attitudes Project) and 54% backs the way the President combats drug traffickers and organized crime (BGC Excélsior). With these levels of support, it is unlikely that this particular issue can carry that much weight on vote choice.

If the conjecture is correct, then it is not a direct mechanism that can link presidential approval to vote choice. We’ll have to wait for serious academic analyses for a more solid answer to this question.

Finally, we need to carefully watch the reaction of López Obrador, with the real risk this time of violence falling out of control.

After roaming the country as the “legitimate president” following the previous presidential election, he reemerged six years later as the leftist candidate… only to obtain roughly the same number of votes that he registered in 2006.

After two failed attempts to become President, López Obrador put himself in a political Catch-22: if he decides to recognize the results, it is very likely that his followers will abandon him thus thwarting his political career; if he decides not to to do so, violence that he cannot control this time around might ensue, but he will most definitely not gain the presidency.

Under these conditions, where the Presidency is lost, there is really no incentive for him to commit political suicide, so it might not be irrational to let the fire spread. We’ll see what comes next when he announces his decision.

So, in a way, the fate of a truly modern left in Mexico hinges – again – upon the decision of one man.

[Cross-posted at The Monkey Cage]

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Joshua Tucker is a Professor of Politics at New York University.