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Feature 062512 Baker

Monday, June 25, 2012

'Mexican Spring,' and Notes on Mexican Presidential Cycles

By George Baker

The U.S. press for all intents and purposes has given the presidential election in Mexico to the PRI candidate, Enrique Peña Nieto, citing poll results. An unexpected anti-PRI student movement, however, has undermined the impression of inevitability of a return of the PRI to power after 12 years in the opposition.

The real dynamics of the Mexican presidential election of 2012 are found online, in the social media. In response to the abuses of the election of 2006, Mexican authorities ruled that negative advertisements were forbidden. Anyone interested in the present electoral cycle that has seen, on YouTube, any of the many search results for "Hitler and Peña Nieto" will realize how this rule has been circumvented online, with a mixture of venom and humor. Even the promotional clips may be presented as negative, as in the one with the title (in Spanish) of "Why el Peje [López Obrador] Should Not Win in 2012."

The present report[i] takes the position that the presidential race of 2012 is between the PRI and PRD, and its purpose is to prepare the reader for either outcome.


This discussion is about the possibility of a PRI loss in the presidential elections of 2012. For professionals in business and government who have come to Mexico (or who have come to age in Mexico) during the past 12 years of the two center-right PAN presidencies, the angry noises from students about the terrible consequences of a PRI return to the presidency are likely to seem overblown, exaggerated. How could the return of the center-left party that had ruled Mexico for seven decades be that bad?

Mexico's Electoral System, 1929-1994

From 1929-2000, Mexico operated as a one-party democracy, "the perfect dictatorship," as Mario Vargas Llosa, the Peruvian novelist, described it in 1990. As evidence, it would have been necessary to point to the single fact that newsprint was a state monopoly.  A great percentage of Mexico's gross domestic product was from the contribution, if not of state monopolies (like Pemex and CFE), then from private oligopolies and duopolies. In the media, it was enough to see an ad from a government company to know that the editorial content had been "bought" by the system.

This system - Mexicans themselves called it "the system" - was one of political patronage, government contracts and crony capitalism, wrapped up neatly in the pretty pronouncements of the 1917 Constitution that affirmed in Article 123 and other articles that a Mexican citizen had the right to employment, education, housing and health care, in addition to other rights like the ability to form trade unions. The fact that the country's skewed income distribution left half the population in poverty would - as a matter of ritual - be taken as a "challenge" for each cycle of presidential candidates.

In the PRI system, everyone in the middle class and above was dependent, directly or indirectly, on a government contract (or contact), or so it seemed. A second fact, were one necessary, was that until 1989 all state governors were from the government party.

When criticism arose about the undemocratic character of having a single party win the presidency without interruption (in the manner of Cuba, North Korea and the Soviet Union), Mexican apologists would point to the unofficial, political pendulum in Mexico by which one six-year presidency that leaned to the right would be followed by another that leaned to the left; hence, there was an off-the-record democratic process within the PRI itself.

The genius of the Mexican political system arose from the ability of the political class to build social pyramids. During the iconic years of the PRI era, the mass of Mexican voters were organized into trade unions, each of which, in turn, belonged to a union of unions, and all of these merged into a confederation of such unions, at the head of which - for roughly a half-century-was one man: Fidel Velázquez.[ii]  The key feature of this system was that these pyramids controlled the votes, funded the PRI campaigns, and bused workers to cheer the PRI candidates when they came to town.

The line between labor union leader and legislator has always been an object of negotiation, thanks to Mexico's unique system of set-aside seats in the Congress known by the word plurinominal (which, in free translation, might be rendered as "short list").

Today, two politically important social-electoral pyramids in Mexico are the state-employee union of teachers, and that of oil workers. The teachers' union has formed its own political party; and the backroom negotiations by its leader, Elba Esther Gordillo, were essential to the PAN's tainted victory in 2006.[iii]

With three exceptions (those of 1988, 1994 and 2000), the presidential elections that took place during the period between 1970 and 2000 obeyed the system's rules.  All policy and ideological debate would take place before the unveiling of the PRI presidential candidate; afterwards, there would be solid support by all factions.

The political system in Mexico invested enormous sums in making the campaign a political fiesta and the PRI candidate the civic redeemer who would fill potholes, bellies and bank accounts. The election itself was intended to be almost an afterthought, a validation of what everyone knew was going to happen in the first place: namely, that the PRI candidate would again prevail over other, lesser candidates with dubious characters and claims.

The Shocks to the PRI System

In the second half of its 70-year run in power, the PRI System suffered three shocks: 1968, 1985 and 1994.  The event of 1968 was the student protest movement that shook the industrial world from Paris to Tokyo, including the U.S. and Mexico. If there was a common theme, it would have been an objection to the authoritarian complacency, feigned democracy and consumerism of the older generations and their institutions. In Mexico, the protest was timed to gain maximum, global media leverage from the Olympic Games that were about to begin in Mexico City.

The government of Gustavo Díaz Ordaz (1964-70) had appointed Carlos A. Madrazo, a Tabasco politician (and former state governor) in his late 40s, as the president of the PRI, hoping that he would keep the younger generation in line. Madrazo interpreted his appointment as a mandate for change, and replaced many functionaries of the Old Guard. In the process, Madrazo's tenure in this capacity was brief, as he created enemies and was forced to resign in 1965.

When the student movement broke out three years later, the government sought to repress it with soldiers, police and pain-clothes thugs.  October 2 in Mexico is remembered as the most violent moment of that repression, with army units firing on students in a park named the Plaza de las Tres Culturas, at the nearby housing complex of Tlatelolco.[iv]

The shock of 1985 was caused by a major earthquake and its aftermath. The crack in the PRI's monopoly of presidential power could be seen. There were hundreds of government buildings that collapsed (from shoddy workmanship and bribed inspectors, it was said), an unknown number died (in the thousands or tens of thousands), and it was the people - not the government - that spontaneously led the rescue and relief efforts.

The shock of 1994 was the implosion of the PRI system: its own presidential candidate was assassinated. Illustrative of the dark suspicions at the time was the tale that on the afternoon of the assassination a staff assistant came into the president's office, agitated, finding the president taking a nap.

"'Mr. President, our candidate Colosio has been assassinated in Tijuana!'

"Rubbing his eyes, the president asked, 'What time is it?'

"The perplexed aide replied, 'Sir? It is 6:30 p.m.'

"'Is it that late?' the president dryly replied."

The Scripted Election of 2006

President Vicente Fox wanted the PAN to nominate Santiago Creel as its presidential candidate; but backroom party politics favored Felipe Calderón. During the extended campaign, which began at the end of the year prior to the elections, PAN's principal competitor, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, was demonized in the media as a Mexican Hugo Chávez. 

Even U.S. academia got behind the smear campaign against López Obrador.  George Grayson, a distinguished political scientist with a half-dozen books on Mexico, ridiculed the candidate in a commissioned treatise in English.

On the other side of the street, the Fox administration monopolized the airwaves in TV and radio spots that itemized the accomplishments of the federal government during its incumbency. In the end, the PAN candidate was said to have won with a margin of less than 1% of the popular votes.[v]

The National Electoral Fiesta of 2012

Observers who recall, from memory, the days when the PRI candidate was the undisputed, civic champion of reform and progress, will tell you that the casting and media attention given to the PRI candidate of 2012 reminds them of times past.  It could even remind them of the candidacy in 1982 of José López Portillo who - running unopposed - travelled the country like a madman, promising everything to everyone.

From the start, Enrique Peña Nieto was greeted with flowers by the media and the pollsters, principally Mitofsky ("Myth-ski," say skeptics).  The international media took the clue, and promoted Peña Nieto by reference to his polling numbers. The first presidential debate was held on Sunday, May 6 (and may be seen on YouTube), and some commentators said that Peña Nieto was "the winner."

Events were working out well for the PRI candidate, who was consistently shown to be ahead in the polls. Voters, commentators said, were tired of the PAN and dissatisfied with its anti-narco policies. Voters feared the PRD's candidate, who caused such an uproar and disruption to normal life in Mexico City when he refused to accept defeat in 2006. The PRI's candidate, in contrast, offered a new face of a reformed PRI which was now kinder and gentler (to borrow a phrase from American politics).

Peña Nieto's candidacy seemed to make him a shoe-in until his address to the students at the Ibero-American University on May 11. The visit was marred by protests by students about his actions as governor, and about his qualifications to be president. He was chased off campus by protesters (the scene may be viewed on YouTube). In the days following, his supporters claimed that the protesters had not really been students, but were paid agents who had been bused in to heckle him.

The Social Media and the Election

The claim that the protest against the visit and candidacy of Peña Nieto was not carried out by students hit a nerve with the Ibero students themselves, and some of the students who protested the appearance of Peña Nieto on campus uploaded on YouTube a film strip in which 131 of them gave their names and student ID numbers.

The Movement "I am 132" is an allusion to the uncounted number of supporters of the movement beyond the original 131. The movement gained public attention by marches in the street and through attack ads online. The attack ads sought to discredit Peña Nieto's Old Guard political and financial supporters (a context in which former president Carlos Salinas de Gortari would often be mentioned).

The PRI's mindset is visually compared to that of Hitler in a series of film clips in which the Führer appears to be furious (reading the subtitles in Spanish) about one thing or another having to do with Peña Nieto's campaign. The most savage of the clips in this series is the one that concerns the ill-starred visit to the Ibero.  The subtitles have Hitler demanding that the media and pollsters be bought off, and that the visit to the university be declared a success.

Mexicans being Mexicans (with their unparalleled genius for political irony), it was not long before there were parodies of attack ads in which supporters of a candidate represented themselves as detractors.  One of these concerns the 20 reasons why López Obrador should not be elected president.

Scripted, Flawed And Dirty Elections

In our Market Note 132 (no political significance intended), we classified Mexican elections since 1970 as scripted, flawed or dirty. The elections of 1970, 1976, 1982, and 2006 were scripted, that is, their outcomes were known in advance from the beginning. As political analyst Samuel Schmidt observes, for the outcome of the election of 2012 to be scripted - that is, with a victory by Peña Nieto - the margin of victory cannot be so large as to generate shouts of "fraud," but nor can it be so small (as it was in 2006) to have the same effect.

The 3rd Debate #Yo Soy 132 of June 19

In some way not yet documented in the public record, a previously unscheduled TV debate was organized and held from 8-10 p.m. on June 19. The moderator was a university student, and a series of questions were posed to individual candidates by students (See:

The four candidates were invited, but the PRI candidate declined, alleging (it was said) that it would be a "trap." Reminiscent of what had happened six years before, when the PRD candidate refused to attend the first debate, an empty chair was placed to visually mark the absence of Peña Nieto.

The second segment of the debate was about monopolies in Mexico. Having noted the lack of competition in cement, food, media, banking and telecommunications, the candidates discussed monopolies in energy. Gabriel Quadri was lucid about the need for competition in oil and power, and insisted on a constitutional change to Articles 27 and 28. "Mexico spends more on subsidies on fossil fuels than on education," he said. Andrés Manuel, in contrast, said that talk of "opening" was a euphemism for "privatization." He favors no change in constitutional mandate. Josefina criticized the PRD candidate for wanting to "lower prices by decree." She also criticized the abuses of the leadership of the Oil Workers' Union.


The term "debate" in Mexico means "timed, serial monologues," so it would seem from viewing the presidential debates. As Gabriel Quadri observed in his concluding remarks, the third debate had "more content and better interaction among the candidates." About energy, he said that there was agreement about the need for renewable energies and reducing subsidies on fossil fuels. Only Quadri asked for a change to Constitution Articles 27 and 28 to permit competition in oil and power.

To judge from the cinematographic creativity of the anti-PRI films on YouTube, most of the student protesters were pursuing a career in social communications.

And there are many coded messages in the selection of the López Obrador dream cabinet:

  • The appointment of Rogelio Ramírez de la O, whose graduate studies were in England, would represent the first time in a generation in which this position has not been filled by an Ivy League school graduate.
  • The appointment of former UNAM rector Ramón de la Fuente as education minister would be a direct challenge to Elba Esther Gordillo and the teachers' union.

When asked on June 17 about who would win, a Mexican waiter at Pico's Restaurant in Bellaire, Texas, responded thus: "Andrés Manuel will win, as in 2006; but, as then, the system will keep him from assuming the office as president."


Among the candidates, Gabriel Quadri is the strongest advocate of completion in all sectors of the economy, including oil and electric power. He was the only one to mention the Hydrocarbons Commission (CNH), insisting that it - not Pemex - should be in charge of the nation's oil patrimony.

If Peña Nieto does not win the presidency, it will be the social media that is to blame (or receive the credit, depending on one's perspective). It will mean that the PRI's long, dark tale of democratic simulation continues to hurt its chances to reclaim the presidency. Historically, it has been in the rural populations where the PRI has had its greatest strength. 

By this measure, barring low voter turnout from these PRI strongholds, the institutional math favors the PRI. Said differently, the "Mexican Spring" may only bloom in urban areas.


[i]    Prepared by MEXICO ENERGY INTELLIGENCE®. This present discussion is abstracted from Market Note 132. MEI is a commercial and policy advisory service offered by BAKER & ASSOCIATES, ENERGY CONSULTANTS, a management consultancy based in Houston. MEI reports facilitate two-way communication between Mexican public and private institutions and the global environment.  Our reports examine policy, institutional and cultural issues as they affect the operating environment, energy regulation, and government and private investment in Mexico's energy sector. Reports are distributed principally on a subscription basis.

[ii] Take the oil workers, for example. Prior to 1935, each refinery and company had its own union, but in that year they consolidated into the Syndicate of the Petroleum Workers of the Republic of Mexico. The STPRM, in turn, was a member of the Confederation of Mexican Workers (or CTM) headed by the immortal Fidel Velázquez, who would famously say, "Death has passed me by," before departing this life in 1997 at the age of 97.

[iii] One reward was to have Gordillo's son-in-law appointed as a Deputy Secretary of Education.

[iv]        The events at Tlatelolco have been portrayed in novels, movies and memoirs. The book by Elena Poniatowska was based on interviews with persons who lived through those events.  The book has become a classic of Mexican literature.

[v] In this election the PRI candidate was the son of PRI reformist Carlos A. Madrazo (who, with his wife, died in a plane crash in 1969 under suspicious circumstances).


George Baker is the director of, a publishing and consulting firm based in Houston.  This commentary is excerpted, by Mr. Baker, from his firm's Market Note 132 (see endnote i above).  He can be reached via e-mail at

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