Disunity in Numbers

Mexico election campaigns begin

Campaigning for Mexico’s July 1 presidential election officially got underway this week. As leftwing old-timer AMLO surges ahead in the polls, are his opponents beginning to devour themselves?

Federal Police agents escort a bus transporting independent presidential candidate Margarita Zavala while heading to a meeting with women as part of her campaign in Ciudad Altamirano, in Guerrero state, Mexico April 3, 2018. REUTERS/Ginnette Riquelme

Campaigning for Mexico’s upcoming July 1 presidential election officially began on March 30.

As if to hasten the festivities, President Trump quickly made a string of searing tweets directed at the Mexican state. He accused the government once again of conspiring to let bad hombres and drugs across the border and threatened to slay its “cash cow” NAFTA if Mexico fails to start building his wall.

Granted, things had already been heating up for a while. Leading contender and leftwing populist, former Mexico City mayor Andrés Manuel López Obrador (known as AMLO) has been bashing Trump and the incumbent president, Peña Nieto, for some time.

That is one reason AMLO is 21 points ahead of the other two leading contenders. Though relative newcomer Ricardo Anaya is polling an impressive 23.8% as leader of Por México Al Frente, an alliance between the center-left PRD and right-wing PAN, the ruling PRI party candidate and technocrat José Antonio Meade has 21.6%.

Another is that two leading independent contenders failed to gain enough signatures to make the final ballot, sweeping much of the stalwart opposition into AMLO’s electoral basket.

Disunity and defeat

But a third and even bigger reason is the spat of recent infighting between AMLO’s opponents. For starters, the fourth contender, Marí­a Zavala, wife of former (PAN) president Felipe Calderón (2006-2012), not only abandoned the PAN-PRD alliance to strike out on her own (polling only 11.1%), but is now rumored to be considering throwing her hat in with Meade.

To make matters worse, the ruling PRI seems to have set its sights on discrediting Anaya rather than AMLO.
In late February the acting attorney general announced it was investigating a property deal made by Anaya in 2014. Though it is unclear whether or not there was any wrongdoing, the suggestion that the candidate laundered money and is beholden to corrupt developers, as pro-government media coverage of the investigation has suggested, has greatly tarnished his previously spotless image, while inadvertently boosting that of AMLO.

It is sadly ironic that one of the major themes of Anaya’s campaign has been his calls for greater autonomy for the very same judiciary whose PRI-appointed attorney general is now trying to strike down his candidacy.

Meade is now calling for Anaya to meet him and AMLO in a three-man debate to discuss each candidate’s financial assets (from which Zavala will be happily excluded).

Declining the offer, Anaya has countered that he will only meet AMLO in the first presidential debate on April 22.

Orchestrate the long game

The Meade team is playing the fiscal competency, anti-corruption, and hard-on-crime cards too.

Giving every indication that a string of leading technocrats will form the core of his future team, including former minister of education Aurelio Nuño, former head of the National Banking and Securities Commission Jaime González, and former head of the Tax Administration Service (SAT) Arturo Téllez Yurén, Meade will be portraying himself as the seasoned and reasonable counterweight to AMLO.

However, with October 2017 on record as the bloodiest month of the century, it is clear that crime and corruption have soared under Peña Nieto. Whether or not Meade will be able to do anything about that remains uncertain.

Meade’s candidacy seeks to reassure the markets, but it does so at the risk of politicizing, and thus weakening, the country’s institutions.

As such, July’s election is shaping up to be as much a battle between markets and institutions as anything.

Wag the dog

Interestingly, Trump’s recent interventions have only boosted AMLO’s chances all the more. Referring in a March 13 speech in San Diego to the “very good” and “not that good” candidates competing for Mexico’s presidency, Trump’s editorializing seems to have given constituents a more black and white view than ever before.

Moreover, despite the bradaggio, talk of touching NAFTA is far from empty.

Not only has the White House hinted on multiple occasions it would like to strike a deal on “NAFTA 2.0″ prior to the Mexican elections, there are also rumors Trump will announce a new deal from the sidelines of the triennial Summit of the Americas, which he is scheduled to attend in Lima from April 13-14.

Having promised to scrap and renegotiate any revised NAFTA agreement that could be detrimental to Mexico, AMLO seems poised to make gains regardless of whether Trump’s plans become reality.

The next three months will be crucial: to go into effect, any new NAFTA deal would have to first get through the Mexican Senate, which convenes in September.