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Mexico Is Having Its Most Depressing Election in Recent History

Remember 2000? Fifteen years since the transition to a multi-party democracy, Mexico's PRI machine is back in power and presiding over a fearful, sour midterm vote. President Peña Nieto's party will likely retain control of Congress.
Imagen por Rebecca Blackwell/AP

For anyone who remembers the thrill and hope generated by the 2000 presidential election in Mexico — in which 71 years of one-party rule were finally broken — today's midterm vote may be remembered, if it is remembered at all, as the most depressing in recent history.

Millions of Mexican citizens are free to vote on Sunday for thousands of public offices, including all 500 members of the lower house of Congress, mayors, and nine state governors.


It is considered a referendum vote halfway through the six-year term of President Enrique Peña Nieto. He's the man whose slick looks and careful media management brought the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, back to power after being on the sidelines since 2000, the year it was booted from the presidential palace.

Despite Peña Nieto's poor approval numbers, the PRI is expected to keep its majority in Mexico's Congress today, aided by its coalition with the anything-but-green Greens.

That's partly because midterm elections in Mexico experience low turnout like they do in the United States. And only a political machine as cynically skilled as the PRI at turning out its base — the government was handing out free digital TVs earlier this year — could benefit from a national mood that is best described as stagnant and sour.

So don't expect a lot of shocking news by evening, unless you count the spectacle of violence that more than anything else has been the defining characteristic of this campaign season.

Dozens of attacks and fatalities have been reported during the campaign, including grenade assaults, sackings of political offices, and assassinations of local bosses and campaign managers. Last Thursday a local party finance boss in Mexico City was found hanging with a bullet through his head. Authorities quickly called it a suicide.

Related: As Elections Approach, Mexico Is Handing Out Free Digital TVs to Millions of Voters


A candidate was beheaded in Guerrero; another shot dead in the middle of a campaign rally in Michoacan; and as recently as early today, violent confrontations kept erupting across the country, including at least 13 who were killed in a gun battle overnight near the resort city of Acapulco. Information was barely surfacing about the incident.

Eight candidates were killed overall in the campaign.

The electoral structure itself has been the target of violence. Mexico's radical dissident teachers union led coordinated attacks against electoral offices in five states last week, burning ballots and political offices. In the northeastern state of Tamaulipas, assailants have launched explosives at local electoral headquarters.

Parts of Oaxaca, where the CNTE dissident teachers union is arguably strongest, have been basically shut down since Friday. Authorities said some polling places won't be administered today due to the teacher attacks. Teachers also shut down gas stations.

Members of a community defense force march with parents and supporters of the missing students from Ayotzinapa on Saturday in Tixtla, Guerrero. (Photo by Rebecca Blackwell/AP)

In Guerrero, the parents of the 43 disappeared young men and survivors of the attack on the Ayotzinapa students said they would prevent polling places from being set up.

Citizens all over the troubled southern state are clamoring for justice for missing loved ones, including the 13 disappeared in the city of Chilapa last month amid a local poppy dispute. A mayoral candidate there was dragged from his vehicle and shot 15 times on May 1.


Mexico's government said the election would take place nonetheless, promising a successful vote — to be held in many places under the guard of police, soldiers, and Mexican marines.

The heavy security presence in the voting is a reminder that the drug war has shown no sign of de-escalating in Peña Nieto's administration under the PRI, despite his own campaign promises in 2012 to eventually return Mexican military units to their barracks.

In the meantime, Mexican security forces have been accused of thousands of extrajudicial killings, cases of torture, and forced disappearances, such as the 43 students taken last September.

Related: The US Military Is Worried It's Supporting Human Rights Abuses with Aid to Mexico

In the middle came Peña Nieto, smartly coiffed and dressed but seemingly not very smart.

Since the Ayotzinapa case, which led to global protests, at least two other alleged extrajudicial massacres have rocked the credibility of Peña Nieto's government: the massacre of 16 mostly unarmed civilians in Apatzingan, and the slaughter of 42 suspected members of a drug cartel in a lopsided "shootout" in Tanhuato, both in the state of Michoacan.

The growing list of state massacres in Mexico have given pause at the Pentagon, recently released documents show. Under the Merida Initiative, the United States has so far supplied Mexican forces with $2.5 billion in aid for the ongoing campaign against drug cartels.


Back in the day

Fifteen years ago, the PRI lost control of the presidency for the first time since 1929, when the party was founded as a stabilizing force after the Mexican Revolution.

Each PRI president willed his successor by the "dedazo," a colloquial term for hand-picked. The party oversaw a steady growth in Mexico's economy through most of the 20th Century, but ruled the population with a potent mix of patronage, repression of dissidents, and a famously strict control of the mass media.

By 2000, Vicente Fox, the first opposition president elected in modern times, promised that Mexico would enter the big leagues of the developed world, by achieving a multi-party democracy that would be transparent and just.

Mexico had already signed the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1994, and just needed a strong democratic society to manage all the imminent riches.

Instead, 15 years later, Mexico is stagnant. Income distribution remains radically unequal, and half the population hovers below the poverty line. The Peña Nieto government's aggressive reform laws have barely given any tangible dividends to the average Mexican consumer.

Related: Mexican Drug Lord Lived in a Cave and Was Caught Because His Girlfriend Brought Him Birthday Cake

Enrique Peña Nieto, center, at an event honoring the National Polytechnic Institute. (Photo via Presidencia de Mexico)

Worse, Mexico is more violent than it has been since the Mexican Revolution. At least 120,000 people have been killed since the president after Fox, Felipe Calderon, declared "war" on the drug cartels in late 2006, after his own hotly contested election.


Calderon's US-backed military campaign against organized crime unleashed a maelstrom of murder and crime that has affected nearly every corner of the country. Calderon said he was winning the war, yet the flow of drugs to the United States continued unabated, and likely does today, despite the recent high-profile arrests of capos such as "El Chapo" and "La Tuta."

Whoever gets the most votes wins — no majority rules.

In the climate of war, fear and a mistrust of the political system took hold of the population, simmering in public consciousness to this day.

Worn down and beleaguered by six years of constant bloodshed, the country in 2012 decided to turn back to what was familiar. Voters in the opposition split between insipid candidacies on both the left and the right — between damaged leftist Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador and his delusion of inevitability, and the disastrous campaign of conservative hardliner Josefina Vazquez Mota.

In the middle came Peña Nieto, smartly coiffed and dressed but seemingly not very smart: he failed to successfully list three books — three single books — that he had read during an appearance at Latin America's biggest book fair in the city of Guadalajara.

Despite the deep distrust for the PRI's style of authoritarian governance, Peña Nieto won the 2012 election anyway.

His brain trust bet on opening the floodgates of foreign investment, voting to open the national oil company Pemex to private money. But persistent drug-war violence and a string of embarrassing corruption scandals have contributed to a lackluster result. Foreign direct investment dropped by half in Mexico between 2013 and 2014.


So after today's voting, the prospect for the second half of Peña Nieto's presidency is overall not encouraging. But whatever happens, it is likely the US government will be more or less cool with it. The White House does not criticize Mexico publicly in any fashion.

Voto nulo?

Amid the doom and gloom, prominent figures in Mexico's intellectual elite called once more on voters to reject all the parties, flat, by going to polls and nullifying their ballots.

The "voto nulo" campaign generated some buzz in the last major midterm elections in 2009, coming in third or fourth place in some races. However, the calls to scratch out ballots in a vote of disgust have not caught on with much vigor this year. Candidates on the left and right said a nullified vote would only benefit the PRI, and they're essentially right. Mexico does not use second rounds in popular elections, meaning whoever gets the most votes wins — no majority rules.

There are some instances of hope. In the large western state of Jalisco, which has seen escalating warfare between government forces and the New Generation cartel, two independent candidacies sparked grassroots support movements that have a decent chance of sending indie citizens to office today.

In the northern economic powerhouse of Nuevo Leon, an independent candidate nicknamed "El Bronco" is surging in polls, promising to buck traditional party politics in the state that is still recovering from its own spate of narco warfare.

And in Mexico City, a young rape survivor is running for a local seat in a tough central barrio. Yakiri Rubio fought back and killed her attacker in 2013 — then had to fight charges of homicide, a reflection of Mexico's still-warped justice system.

She's running her campaign with her parents from their home in Tepito. "I know the party is using me to get more votes," Rubio told VICE News recently, "but what they don't know is that I'm using them."

Related: Hunger Strike Called Off by American Woman Jailed in Mexico

For updates on Mexico's election throughout the day, follow Daniel Hernandez on Twitter: @longdrivesouth