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Column 060412 Wall

Monday, June 4, 2012

President Felipe Calderon, IFE and the Mexican Incumbency

By Allan Wall

Mexico is in the midst of its presidential election, with voting scheduled for July 1st. 

And recently, current President Felipe Calderon was charged with violating the Mexican Constitution by the IFE (Instituto Federal Electoral), Mexico's electoral commission.   By a margin of 4 to 3 (with two councillors absent), IFE's council voted that Calderon violated the Constitution.

According to IFE, Calderon broke Article 134 of the Mexican Constitution, by carrying out personalized advertising and using public funds for electoral purposes. 

What did Calderon actually do?

In March, Calderon sent a letter to beneficiaries of FOVISSTE, the government bureaucracy which gives housing credits to government employees.  The letter congratulated them for having received the benefits.  This was ruled to be in violation of Article 134 of the Mexican Constitution.

This is the third time Calderon has been accused by IFE of violating the Constitution. 

The first time was in 2010 when the Mexican president broadcast a message about security on a national media chain, and held press conferences to announce job creation and financial incentives. This was ruled to be in violation of Article 41.

In 2012, Calderon sent out an email through the Mexican tax bureaucracy reminding people that government projects are funded by citizens' taxes.  This was ruled to be in violation of Article 134.

However, at this time President Calderon cannot be charged with these violations. According to the Mexican Constitution (Article 108), a sitting president cannot be charged except for treason and "grave threats to the public order."

Still, the fact remains that, according to IFE, Calderon has violated the Constitution three times.

So what's going on here?  Doesn't it all seem rather nitpicky?  Yes, but there is a historical context that makes it understandable.  Given the history of past government abuse of power, Mexican law attempts to curtail its power. 

The Mexican Constitution, in Article 134, stipulates that official government advertising is to be of an institutional character and have as its purpose to inform the public.  It should not "include names, images, voices or symbols that imply personalized promotion of any public servant."

Obviously, as President of Mexico, Calderon is under more scrutiny than any other public official in these matters.  As well, President Calderon is prohibited from interfering in the election, a prohibition that doesn't only include using state funds to support his PAN party candidate.  That too is obvious.

President Calderon is not supposed to publicly endorse Josefina Vazquez Mota, the candidate of Calderon's PAN party. He's not even supposed to appear to be endorsing Josefina. As a matter of fact, Calderon had better not even appear to imply to endorse Josefina.

What's the big deal? Don't American presidents endorse their party's candidates?

Of course they do.  In 1988, incumbent Ronald Reagan campaigned for George H.W. Bush.  In 2000, Bill Clinton would have campaigned for Al Gore except that Gore didn't want Clinton to do so.

In American politics it's normal. But in Mexico things are different.

Consider the historical context here. For 71 years the PRI controlled the presidency.   Twelve years ago, in 2000, Vicente Fox was the first opposition party candidate to break the PRI's stranglehold on the executive.

In the old PRI days, elections were held, like clockwork, every six years.  It's just that the PRI utilized its government power to win every election.

The days of the one-party state are over, but the memories are still fresh.  That explains why a Mexican president must be very careful to avoid any appearance of unfair advantage for his party.

If Calderon talks up government programs, it can be interpreted as helping PAN candidate Josefina.

It's important to avoid unfair advantage.  Yet no country with presidential elections can ever entirely remove the advantage of the incumbency.  That's because if things are going well, or perceived as going well, or better, that can help the incumbent's party.

But it's a double-edged sword.  If things are not perceived to be going well, or there are glaring problems, that can be blamed on the incumbent and hurt his party's candidate.

The drug war violence, for example?

Anything positive Calderon says about his administration could be construed as an endorsement of Josefina.  But the reverse is also true. Anything bad that happens, whether Calderon's fault or not, can work to the detriment of Josefina's campaign.

In other words, the incumbency is a double-edged sword.  It can help or it can hurt.

At this point in time, the incumbency is not helping Josefina Vazquez Mota, the candidate of President Calderon's party.  According to polling, Josefina is in third place.  

At the time of this writing, the latest BGC-Excelsior poll paints the picture thusly: Enrique Peña Nieto of the PRI at 45%; Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador of the PRD at 27%; Josefina Vazquez Mota of the PAN at 24%; and Gabriel Quadri de la Torre of PANAL with a whopping 4%.


Allan Wall, an educator, resided in Mexico for many years.  His website is located at

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