Mexico’s active and demanding citizenry

By and large, Mexicans feel they have no good alternative.

Poll workers count ballots underneath a street lights, at an outdoor poling station in Chilpancingo, Guerrero State, Mexico [AP]
Poll workers count ballots under a street light at an outdoor polling station in Chilpancingo, Guerrero state, Mexico [AP]

Halfway through the six-year term of Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto, Mexico went to the polls on June 7 for its largest mid-term elections, renewing all 500 seats in the lower house of Congress and 17 state legislatures, as well as selecting new governors for nine states and mayors for hundreds of cities across the country.

Mexicans are more frustrated than ever with persistent violence and corruption, but initial results show the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) performing well, winning more seats in the federal legislature than any of its opponents.

For most people reading the headlines coming out of Mexico in the past year – extrajudicial killings in the State of Mexico, 43 students missing in Guerrero, conflict of interest scandals involving homes being built for the president’s family and inner circle, disappointing economic growth – such a result is probably surprising. Indeed, in many ways the conditions were ripe for a much harsher rejection of the ruling party at the ballot box; after all, the president currently has the lowest approval rating of any Mexican president in 20 years.

Mexico’s ruling party holds on to power

The reason for the PRI success, despite everything, is actually quite simple. By and large, Mexicans feel they have no good alternative.

Rampant corruption

Mexico’s main party on the left, the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), has officially split in two, with former presidential candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador leaving the PRD to start his own party, Morena, which appears to have captured almost as many votes as the PRD itself.

Worse for the left, though, was the fact that the mayor who colluded with organised crime to arrange the disappearance and probable killing of the 43 students in Guerrero state, as well as the governor, who knew about his ties to organised crime but did nothing, were both from the PRD. Corruption, it seems, does not have a preferred political party.

On the right, the National Action Party (PAN), though still officially unified, is also quite fragmented. It is also saddled with its own share of corruption scandals and the difficulty of overcoming a legacy of having ruled Mexico as the murder rate reversed a decades-long downward trend as organised crime-related violence reached critical levels.

The apparent victory of Jaime Rodriguez, better known as “El Bronco”, to become governor of the large and economically powerful northern state of Nuevo Leon, will make him the first independent, or non party-affiliated, candidate to rule a Mexican state.

Jaime Rodriguez, the new independent governor of Nuevo Leon state [Reuters]
Jaime Rodriguez, the new independent governor of Nuevo Leon state [Reuters]

Rodriguez ran as an outsider looking to shake up a stale establishment (even though he was a PRI politician for decades), and the message resonated. His victory raises the likelihood of a credible independent presidential candidate in 2018, something previously unthinkable in a system dominated by powerful political parties.

Check on unions’ powers

In southern Mexico, activists and a radical teachers’ union have protested against the elections, in some cases stealing and burning ballots. Their complaints range from the government’s handling of the case of the 43 missing students to the implementation of a major education reform, passed in 2014, that would force teachers to be evaluated and puts checks on the unions’ powers.

Though the elections appear to have proceeded with only a few isolated incidents of disruption, these protests, too, tell us something about the major challenges currently facing the ruling party. The teachers have taken advantage of a weakened president and party during important mid-term elections by upping the pressure. Last week, the government appeared to bow to their demands, cancelling the implementation of teachers’ evaluations, a key part of the government’s programme to improve education.

Battered and bruised as they are, Mexico’s main political parties will survive this election and remain in power.


Battered and bruised as they are, Mexico’s main political parties will survive this election and remain in power.

What has changed, however, is the intensity with which citizens are demanding an end to business as usual.

Just two weeks ago, Pena Nieto signed into law a major anti-corruption reform that was largely designed and – some would say forced on the government – by a coalition of academics and civil society organisations.

Now, citizens appear to have elected their first non party-affiliated governor, and civil society is organising in an attempt to reverse the decision to suspend teachers’ evaluations.

The significance of Mexico’s election then lies not so much in the candidates elected as in those who elected them: an increasingly active, organised, and demanding citizenry.

Having citizens with the tools and know-how to hold their government accountable – that is much more important for the future of Mexico than which party is in office.  

Christopher Wilson is deputy director of the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Mexico Institute, where he leads research and programming on economic competitiveness and border affairs.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.