What can be learnt from the crucial tight state election in Mexico?

SUMMARY: The PRI just maintained control of the governorship of Edomex, the most populous state in Mexico. This was the last local election before next year’s presidential election, which is (unofficially) on. From now on, all “policy” will gradually be replaced by “politics”. Morena’s loss leaves the coin up in the air. The spotlight is on how Lopez Obrador will react to his narrow loss. He is already being compared (yet again) to Hugo Chávez. However the sad truth is that many believe the result in Edomex was rigged with corruption and vote-buying.

What happened?

In a very close election on Sunday 4th of June, Mexico’s ruling party, the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) and its candidate, Alfredo del Mazo, the cousin of President Peña Nieto, won the governorship of the State of Mexico (Edomex) with 34% of the vote.

The runner-up was the left-wing party National Regeneration Movement (Morena), led by Andrés Manuel Lopez Obrador, who came second in the last two presidential elections. Delfina Gómez, the party’s candidate, finished 3% short of del Mazo.

The center-left Revolutionary Democratic Party (PRD) came third with 18% of the vote, whilst the conservative National Action Party (PAN) came fourth with only 11% of the vote. 

Why it matters?

Symbolism, symbolism, symbolism. Contrary to popular belief, these results are not a predictor of what will happen next year. But this was the very last “big” election before 2018. Edomex is the biggest state in the country in terms of population and no.2 in GDP terms.

Oxygen for the President and the PRI

Although the margin of victory was narrow, the PRI managed to win by dividing the opposition and neutralizing the anti-PRI vote. However, keeping the governorship of “a state that the PRI will never lose” will not take the party very far. In fact, the PRI effectively lost half of their Edomex vote compared to the last election. By winning Edomex, the PRI has only won the right not to be completely discarded as a contender next year.

Edomex is the state in which President Enrique Peña Nieto built his political career. Losing the election would have hurt his political capital considerably. With these results, both President Peña Nieto, and his ally Enrique Ochoa, the party’s leader, will hold a strong hand in deciding who will be the PRI presidential candidate.

An extraordinary and yet disappointing result for Morena

For a year now, Morena had been running a successful campaign and - through friendly channels- making it known that a Lopez Obrador win in 2018 is inevitable. Winning the Edomex election would have consolidated the message.

Two weeks before the election, when Morena was accused of corruption and accepting the support of shadowy figures- Lopez Obrador confronted two journalists, adding to the narrative that he is some sort of Maduro or Chavez type figure. The discourse and tone that he is adopting after his party’s loss (by such a short margin) is well calculated, seeking to maintain its radical base whilst conserving an attractive profile for the disenchanted independents; but it will do little to change the idea that he is a volatile populist.

The PRD and the PAN: lessons

Last year the unnatural alliance between the conservatives of the PAN and the center-left of the PRD delivered great results, pushing the PRI away from the governorships of states that it had governed for 80+ years, such as Veracruz. This year, the two parties decided to go with standalone candidates. The result was catastrophic for the PAN, whose candidate, Josefina Vázquez Mota, managed to came fourth even if she was the most well-known contender at the beginning of the race (she was the PAN’s candidate for president in 2012).

The result has put pressure on Ricardo Anaya, the president of the party, who is a presidential hopeful. This damaging loss has cast a shadow on his previous successes as party leader. Margarita Zavala, the former First Lady, is looking to seize on this as evidence that Anaya is not ready. Rafael Moreno Valle, the former governor of Puebla and the third option for the PAN, has kept quiet for the time being, hoping that the Anaya-Zavala conflict will be so entrenched that he will become the viable third-way option soon.

Before the Edomex election the PRD was perceived as a soon-to-be-irrelevant party. Lopez Obrador rejected the idea of forming a coalition with them and demanded the PRD leave the race and endorse Delfina Gómez in the last weeks before the election. But the realization that the PRD would actually do well came too late. The unknown PRD candidate, Juan Zepeda, former mayor of Nezahualcoyotl, turned out to be very charismatic.

The party managed to secure both third place and obtain a similar percentage of votes than it did 6 years ago, before Morena splintered. Two weeks ago the PRD and PAN leaders announced their intention to present a unified front in the presidential election but the PRD has backed down, as they gained more leverage to negotiate an alliance ahead of 2018. Such a coalition could be the element that decides the election. Both the PAN and Morena (and even the PRI) have a lot to ponder.

Lessons learned

The PRI avoided a potential banana skin. However - while they may have retained the governorship of Edomex - Morena successfully stole over half of their votes. Many of the core PRI supporters of the past feel alienated from a PRI that is too technocratic for their taste. Insecurity, inequality and endemic corruption are pushing people to find new options and Morena has clearly established itself as the most credible one.

But as shown by the Veracruz election last year and the one in Edomex last Sunday, Morena still needs ‘something extra’ to push his message over the line. It’s natural ally would be the PRD. According to polls, 6 out of 7 of the votes that went for Juan Zepeda would have gone for Morena if the PRD was not in the ballot.

The Mexican’s peso hit its highest level after the results were announced. Investors have rallied under the idea that a Lopez Obrador administration would be devastating for Mexico’s economy and saw the election in Edomex as a critical test for next year’s presidential vote.

The election will head to courts after widespread allegations of voter intimidation, vote buying and misuse of public resources. All the major opposition parties have accused PRI of using state and federal resources to ensure the party retained power in the state.

Why it matters to you?

Issues of policy will gradually become less relevant. The ability to influence policy and legislation will be more dependent on political calculations than the substance of the issues and it is time to start thinking about what and who is next.

Lopez Obrador would be less open to the private sector and would certainly be more challenging. Under his nationalist administration, the NAFTA renegotiation would be much harder and could more easily fail.

We have strong links into all camps and are ready to help you plan and build relationships for the future, post 2018.

To discuss a potential requirement for support and learn more about our business, please contact:

Gonzalo Escribano Tamayo
  • Government Relations Director
  • Email: gonzalo.escribano@speyside-group.com