Mexico’s Election: Towards Democracy or Dictatorship?
Mexico’s Election: Towards Democracy or Dictatorship?

In a national election fraught with controversy, Mexicans elected PRI (Partido Revolucionario Institucional) candidate Enrique Peña Nieto, thereby reinstating the political party that headed an autocratic regime for more than 70 years and whose expulsion in 2000 had been heralded as the start of Mexican democracy.

Has the Mexican public forgotten in just 12 years the preceding seven decades of authoritarianism, corruption, and capitulation to organized crime? Is Peña Nieto merely a fresh-faced façade for the party’s old guard? Did July 1’s democratic election augur a regression towards what had once been described as a “perfect dictatorship,”1  or has the PRI sincerely changed its ways? The answers to these urgent questions are complex and, as of yet, indeterminate; however, a close examination of a few significant factors offers meaningful insight into what the PRI’s return to power means for Mexico.

Popular Opposition and #YoSoy132

“I am president by the majority decision of the Mexicans,” Peña Nieto declared in an interview with CNN shortly after the elections.2  Peña Nieto did indeed win the race — though this, too, is hotly contested as protests and demands for a full recount persist — but he garnered support from less than half of the voting population. Peña Nieto won 38 percent of the vote; leftist candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador received 32 percent and conservative candidate Josefina Vázquez Mota got 25 percent.3  These numbers certainly do not reflect a country united behind any one candidate or political party.

The Los Angeles Times reported that many Mexicans expressed “near-existential dismay” over the lack of sincerely desirable forerunners in the election.4  The fairly even distribution of votes suggests this was a legitimate democratic competition and furthermore demonstrates that the reinstatement of the PRI is not the result of a simple case of amnesia. Rather, the Mexican public was faced with a tough decision between three less-than-ideal candidates. If not even half of the voting population could stomach the return of the old PRI, more than half decidedly could not.

Peña Nieto’s was by no means a conclusive victory, won by a far smaller margin than polls had predicted.5  Many believe that the PRI edged out López Obrador and the PRD (Partido de la Revolución Democrática) by employing a number of old and underhanded tactics, such as vote-buying and the use of public resources for political campaigns, which have been attributed to the PRI for decades.6  Taking this into consideration, Peña Nieto’s margin of victory may in actuality be less than the reported six percent or three million votes as many Mexicans might simply have sold their votes to the highest bidder — which happened to be the PRI.7

If these allegations of vote-buying are true, it would mean not only that the PRI is up to its old corrupt ways but also that a substantial percentage of Mexicans are susceptible to its tactics and may be further persuaded into facilitating the return of an autocratic regime. On the other hand, it also would mean that not all of the 38 percent who voted for Peña Nieto are serious supporters and that such supporters are far outnumbered by dissidents — or, at the very least, apathetics unlikely to rush to his defense should foul play become apparent.

Moreover, Peña Nieto must contend with the vocal and openly hostile outcries of the formidable student protest movement #YoSoy132. Tens of thousands of students, angry at Mexico’s entrenched political powers, organized mass demonstrations against Peña Nieto and established a presence on social media networks. The youth vote was important in the race; there are 24 million voters under age 30. Comprising nearly a third of the electorate, they have the potential to possess considerable clout throughout the coming term. They also, however, have the lowest level of political engagement, with the ages between 20 and 24 being the least likely group to vote.8  This made it difficult for YoSoy132 to influence the election’s outcome, or to be taken seriously as a change agent. Nevertheless, even those who see the movement as immature and unfocused hope that YoSoy132 will become a check and balance on Peña Nieto’s government.9

Disenfranchisement and Voter Fraud

Officials have called this year’s election the most transparent election in Mexico’s history — this, however, should be read more as statement of the outright corruption of past elections rather than an assertion of the honest legitimacy of the election at hand. Despite tighter oversight and strengthened laws to ensure clean elections, analysts say the election remained vulnerable to many of the dirty tricks that flourished during PRI rule.10

Taking a page from the PRI’s old playbook, all three parties bused voters to the polls on election day and gave them meals or other perks along the way. Another reported ploy is for voters to take a picture of their marked ballot with a cell phone and later show it to party operatives in return for cash.11  “We continue to have elections that have serious problems in terms of legality, equality of access,” said John M. Ackerman, a law professor in Mexico City who has written about the country’s election laws.12

Poor planning on the part of election authorities resulted in mass disenfranchisement throughout the nation. Many citizens had to leave their home constituencies to go to work before the polls opened at 8am, and would not return before they shut at 6pm. Though special polling stations had been set up in city centers for thousands of people in precisely this predicament, each was stocked with only 750 ballots.

Disenfranchised voters protested outside the electoral authorities into the night; some desperately chalked up their votes on makeshift tally-sheets outside polling stations.13  Most of those denied their right to vote in this fashion were members of the underprivileged working class, whose relative lack of social capital means that the right to vote constitutes the sum total of their political voice. As a result, those for whom the vote meant the most were able to vote the least.

The most egregious and controversial fraud, however, took place long before election day and far beyond the reach of the safeguards instituted at the polling stations. Accusations that the PRI had handed out thousands of pre-paid gift cards to voters in slums on the outskirts of Mexico City sharpened when hoards of people rushed to grocery stores to redeem them after the elections. PRI representatives reportedly handed out gift cards claiming to be worth 500 pesos, though a number of accounts state they only amounted to 100 pesos each — or about $7.50.14  Even incumbent Felipe Calderon, who suffered his own post-electoral dispute following the 2006 election, called for an investigation into the vote-buying allegations and for reforms to prevent such practices in the future.15  PRD candidate López Obrador denounced the stunt as a “scandal” and “a national embarrassment.”16

The North American Congress on Latin America’s official blog notes that while all the parties likely took part in this buying of goodwill, the PRI’s cash gifts were typically larger and the system better organized. The PRI’s gifts may have been greater because it had more money to spend (much of it of uncertain origin) and (as it is alleged by both losing parities) the PRI’s expenditures were well in excess of legal spending limits.17  Though a partial recount has been ordered, and an investigation in process, such dirty campaigning is not considered to be outright, illegal fraud and is, therefore, difficult to combat.

Although the extent of the PRI’s voter manipulation remains uncertain, the facts at our disposal insinuate that Peña Nieto’s victory and the reinstatement of the PRI will not bode well for the future of Mexican democracy. The PRI’s polished and systematic vote-buying methods indicate that the party is not only comfortable with, but focused on the manipulation of the people for the PRI’s benefit. It furthermore demonstrates a brazen lack of concern over the disenfranchisement of the poor, as the party specifically targeted citizens in slums whose votes can be bought for a pittance due to their economic desperation.

If the party relies heavily on the exploitation of the poor to gain and maintain its power, then there is an obvious incentive to keep a significant portion of the population poor enough to remain easy to persuade. Finally, the use dirty campaigning tricks shows a general lack of respect for the democratic process itself; having a party in power that routinely employs such tactics will normalize corruption and impede Mexico’s progress as a truly democratic nation.


Evidence suggests that the reinstatement of the PRI is bad for the future of Mexican democracy, but this sentiment must be weighed against the equally significant fact that the people of Mexico are clearly unwilling to put up with rampant corruption without a fight. As dishonest as the PRI’s campaign may have been, the people have proven themselves vocal, opinionated, and capable of organizing in opposition to such political maneuvering.

Voter turnout for this election was, at 62 percent, higher than that of previous election cycles, and the presence of the YoSoy132 movement is indicative of a Mexican public thirsting for legitimate government and truly democratic rule. Therefore, while the PRI may be up to its same old tricks, the president elect is up against a distinctly different Mexico.

1  T.W. “The PRI Is Back.” The Economist. July 2, 2012.
2  CNN Wire Staff. “Vote-buying allegations persist after Mexican election.” CNN Wire. July 9, 2012.
3  Zabludovsky, Karla. “Mexcan Election officials Confirm Presidential Victory.” New York Times. July 6, 2012.
4  Ellingwood, Ken and Wilkinson, Tracy. “Will dirty tricks have role in Mexico’s presidential election?” Los Angeles Times. July 1, 2012.
5  Zabludovsky, supra note 3.
6  Payan, Tony. “Mexico’s presidential election: Back to the future.” Blog. July 2, 2012.
7  Ibid.
8  Cave, Damien. “In Protests and Online, a Youth Movement Seeks to Sway Mexico’s Election.” The Lede. June 11, 2012.
9  Ibid.
10  Ellingwood and Wilkinson, supra note 4.
11  Ibid.
12  Ibid.
13  T.W., supra note 1.
14  Associated Press. “Accusations Grow of Vote-Buying in Mexico Elections.” NPR. July 3, 2012.
15  Associated Press. “Mexican elections certain to face challenges in courts.” Washington Post. July 9, 2012.
16  NPR, supra note 14.
17  Rosen, Fred. “The Mexican Election: Not Yet a Done Deal.” North American Congress on Latin America. July 4, 2012.

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