from Energy Realpolitik and Energy Security and Climate Change Program

The Coming Presidential Elections in Mexico: Will López Obrador maintain the Lead?

Leftist front-runner Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador of the National Regeneration Movement (MORENA) gestures while leaving the Palacio de Mineria after the first presidential debate in Mexico City, Mexico April 22, 2018. (REUTERS/Henry Romero)

April 25, 2018

Leftist front-runner Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador of the National Regeneration Movement (MORENA) gestures while leaving the Palacio de Mineria after the first presidential debate in Mexico City, Mexico April 22, 2018. (REUTERS/Henry Romero)
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This is a guest post by Isidro Morales, a professor of the School of Government at Tecnológico de Monterrey, Santa Fe (Mexico City) campus.

On Sunday April 22, the first of three presidential debates took place in Mexico City, gathering the five candidates out of which three are sponsored by their respective political parties, and two are running as independent contenders. Slightly more than two months ahead of election day on July 1, polling indicates the choice will be between Andrés Manuel López Obrador and Ricardo Anaya Cortés. López Obrador is sponsored by Morena, the political party he founded himself, in coalition with two other parties, the center-left Partido del Trabajo (PT) and the center-right Partido Encuentro Social (PES). Anaya is supported by the center-right Partido Acción Nacional (PAN), in coalition with two center-left parties, Partido de la Revolución Democrática (PRD) and Movimiento Ciudadano. A few days before the first debate took place, Reforma, a Mexican leading newspaper, published a poll showing a major lead by López Obrador on electoral preferences: 48 percent, while Anaya held 23 percent of the preferences and Jose Antonio Meade, the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI) candidate, only 14 percent.

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The polarization in voting preferences is not surprising. López Obrador has been successful in exploiting the frustration and disaffection of most parts of the Mexican population against the PRI, the party which lost the presidential election in 2000 after ruling Mexico for more than seventy years and which came back to power in 2012, with Enrique Peña, whose presidential term became highly disappointing. Indeed, the presidential election of July 1, will take place in a country in which public safety is fragile, political corruption is widespread (various PRI’s former governors are either prosecuted or law fugitives), and NAFTA is being renegotiated with uncertain outcomes. The backdrop on energy issues is that oil production continues to fall while gasoline prices increase, in spite of a major energy reform which opened to private participation (national and foreign) to all production chains of the industry.

The first presidential debate did not cover the energy issue, which is slated for later sessions focused on economic issues. However, the energy reforms have not been successful enough to help the PRI with its reelection. With a historically low record of popularity reached by Peña’s administration, it looks difficult for Meade, the current PRI candidate. In spite of his good record as a public administrator, he seems unlikely to narrow the gap he still has vis-à-vis Anaya. Despite the widely touted energy reforms, the Mexican oil industry still faces a host of challenges, not the least of which is increasing theft and violence against oil facilities that have endangered the lives of oil workers. Announcements to begin developing Mexico’s vast shale resources in the state of Tamaulipas have also been greeted with some skepticism since the region is dominated by the Zetas and Gulf drug cartels and it is unclear how the government would address any security issues that could plague drillers.    

While the margin is still large between López Obrador and Anaya, it could eventually be narrowed and eventually reversed, depending on how electors scatter their choices among the independent runners, and how the two major contenders attract or disappoint their respective constituencies. The outcome of the first debate, for example, seems to have played to the benefit of Anaya, at least this is what another survey published by Reforma shows slightly after the debate was over, including the opinion of leading voices from academia, politics, business, and civil society. Indeed, López Obrador was vague on critical issues during the debate while Anaya was assertive and specific in his attacks regarding important proposals and against some controversial members included in Lopez Obrador’s party (i.e., Manuel Barlett, blamed for being the orchestrator of an electoral fraud favoring the PRI during the 1988 elections, when he was Secretary of Government).

Two contentious issues of the debate are particularly salient to Mexican voters. The first one is the amnesty previously announced, while campaigning, by López Obrador to Mexican drug barons in case he becomes president, as a means to end the “war on drugs” initiated by former president Felipe Calderón, in 2006. Anaya and most of the other candidates have rejected this possibility, highly sensitive in a country in which more than 120,000 people have lost their lives since the armed confrontation against drug traffickers started. During the debate, Anaya confronted his rival on the issue, asking him whether he continues to support the amnesty. López Obrador rather provided for a diffuse answer, suggesting that organized crime activities is the result of social and economic conditions prevailing in the country, and that the final decision will be taken after consulting a group of experts.

The second hot confrontation in the debate was on the means for making more transparent and accountable Mexico’s public policy, including the performance of the Presidency. Anaya was clear in advancing his proposal for creating an independent prosecutor, elected not by the president in power (as it is currently the case) but by the congress, with the mandate to prosecute the corruption of public officials, including the president. According to rules still prevailing in the country, the president cannot be impeached, unless there is an alleged cause of “treason to the Nation”. The proposed change would make impeachment by mismanagement possible for all public officials, if the Mexican Constitution is changed and an independent prosecutor is established.

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By contrast, López Obrador calls for abating corruption and tackling government accountancy by putting himself as the model of good governance when he arrives to the presidency. He promises to rule with austerity and transparency, by emulating the political and social performance of past national heroes—such as Benito Juárez, the president who repelled a French intervention; Francisco Madero, the president who restored democracy after the fall of the Diaz dictatorship; and Lázaro Cárdenas, the president who nationalized the oil industry in 1938—and putting in place a sort of referendum, every two years, in order to ask the electorate whether the president should continue in power or step down.

The first debate also revolved around security and political issues, while coming debates will deal with economic, social, and foreign policy aspects. However, the electorate is already anxious to know, whether López Obrador will remain vague and diffuse as he was in this first debate, concerning other controversial issues of his campaign. A critical question is his ultimate position on the reversal of the energy reform incepted by the current administration, which needed a constitutional amendment requiring at least two thirds of the votes of the legislators and the support of at least half of the state congresses. According to Alfonso Romo, the would-be chief of staff in the case that López Obrador becomes president, the reform will remain in place and contracts signed by the current administration with private companies will not be cancelled. However, according to Rocío Nahle, current leader of Morena in the Chamber of Deputies, and potential secretary of energy if López Obrador becomes president, the reform could be revisited and private contracts cancelled in case evidence of corruption is found.

Will López Obrador call for a group of experts once he is in power in order to decide the future of his energy policy, as he said he will do for confronting organized crime? If he does, how will the group of experts be formed? It is up to López Obrador and his team to clarify their position in this hot issue during the following two months of the presidential campaign. If the ambiguity is maintained, López Obrador risks losing part of his constituency to the benefit of the rest of the candidates.

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