Argument

A Campaign About Nothing

Why are Mexico's presidential candidates ignoring the 800-lb. gorilla in the room -- the failing drug war?

On July 1, some 80 million Mexican voters will turn their backs on the drama and turbulence that has recently beset their country as they select a new president for the next six years. The electorate will choose among three main candidates whose statements and policy positions have been notably cautious -- and who have been strikingly vague about what they would change in how the country is handling its most serious problems.

The lackluster campaign is surprising in such a convulsed setting. Outgoing president Felipe Calderón of the center-right National Action Party (PAN) has presided over a rough stretch since 2006. His term has been marked by some 50,000 murders attributable to Mexico's drug-fueled violence, amid fierce battles among ruthless cartels.

Although the economy has recently rebounded, it, too, has suffered more than other countries in the region, with a sharp surge in levels of extreme poverty since the onset of the global economic crisis in 2008. Mexico's problems are inextricably tied to the United States -- not only its economy but also its drug consumption habits and passionate attachment to weapons that often wind up illegally down south. (It's not just Fast and Furious: A 2011 Senate report found that roughly 70 percent of firearms recovered from Mexican crime scenes and submitted for tracing came from the United States.)

Yet it is hard to discern any fresh policy ideas from the candidates about how to deal with widespread insecurity -- unsurprisingly, the top concern for most Mexicans -- as well as how to more effectively reposition the country in its complicated political relations with the United States.

Enrique Peña Nieto of the long-established, broad-based Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which dominated Mexican politics for seven decades until its ouster in 2000, is the most likely winner. A governor of the state of Mexico, which includes Mexico City, he has enjoyed an ample advantage of roughly 15 points in most polls. Though telegenic, he appears to lack deep convictions and has eschewed strong stands on key national issues. He has had every incentive to guard his comfortable lead and not stake out any new policy ground. He has touted his plan for "effective government," making the case that unlike Calderón, Mexico's former ruling party will actually be able to get things done.

The PRI's likely return should not be surprising. After all, over the past dozen years, the party retained considerable control at the local and state levels even as it was excluded from the National Palace. Much of the party's well-oiled machinery remained intact. Most Mexicans have been disappointed by the performance of the two largely undistinguished PAN governments. But Peña's platform for dealing with the security challenge, the economy, and relations with the United States contains few appreciable differences with the agenda Calderón has pursued over the past six years. In the scheme of things, the proposed changes -- for example, less emphasis on taking down the top echelons of criminal groups -- are relatively trivial. Moreover, Peña's June 14 announcement that Gen. Oscar Naranjo, former head of Colombia's national police, would be his chief security advisor, only underscores the likely continuity with the current policies carried out by the United States and Calderón. U.S. drug authorities have worked closely with Naranjo for years and have a high regard for him.

Josefina Vázquez Mota, the PAN candidate and a former education minister, has been markedly wary of departing too far from the record of the current government (even though she was not Calderón's preferred candidate). She has also not taken advantage of the asset of possibly becoming Mexico's first woman president. Any proposed changes from current policies -- on security, the economy, the social agenda, or relations with the United States -- have been on the margins and mostly rhetorical. On security, her idea of a "militarized national police" force sounds similar to what is being put in place under Calderón. Even on her forte, social policy, she has held back and has not proposed major reforms to the country's dismal education system.

One might have expected that the candidate of the so-called left, Andrés Manuel López Obrador of the Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD), would have provided some excitement. But López Obrador, who has now edged out Vasquez for second place in most polls, has been anything but audacious. In 2006, when he was associated with Hugo Chávez's brand of radicalism, López Obrador ferociously disputed his narrow loss to Calderón and claimed that he was Mexico's legitimate president. His obstinacy proved costly with many voters. Six years later, the firebrand qualities and rough edges have been softened and he has sought to project a more moderate and pragmatic image.

López Obrador's political evolution was evident in the second presidential debate on June 10, when the leftist's proposals on fighting poverty, which highlight public health and more educational opportunities, were hardly different than those of the other two. On security, it is hard to find much daylight between what López Obrador is saying -- focus on building an effective police force -- and the main features of Calderon's approach. And apart from a few rhetorical flourishes that point to greater emphasis on development over security, he has not departed from the current policy towards the United States, which entails substantial cooperation on a wide-ranging agenda.

One area of difference is energy policy, where López Obrador has opposed calls made both by Peña and Vasquez to open up flagging state-owned oil and gas monopoly to foreign investment. Peña has suggested moves toward greater privatization of the petroleum sector, following the successful formula of Brazil's Petrobras. But a shift in this direction will surely be politically difficult, particularly within Peña's PRI.

The caution displayed by Mexico's presidential candidates can also be explained by the erosion of social trust in the society. Studies show that deepening public security crisis has taken a heavy toll on public confidence in politicians and institutions. This trend is particularly pronounced among Mexico's expanding middle class which, despite its anxiety about violence, has greater access than ever to education and consumer goods and, in many cases, is experiencing upward mobility. The candidates are perhaps loath to make promises for bold transformation before an understandably cynical electorate. They know that the more they promise, the less they are likely to be believed.

The student protests that erupted May 11 at the Ibero American University provided perhaps the only bit of excitement in an otherwise no-drama campaign. The students were protesting against an appearance by Peña, reviving accusations of corruption and authoritarianism long associated with the PRI. The outrage was then directed against Mexico's two media giants, Televisa and TV Azteca, for their overwhelmingly favorable coverage in support of the PRI candidate. The protests have continued -- a reported 90,000 gathered in Mexico City on June 10 -- and have spurred a social media movement, known by the hashtag #YoSoy132, which refers to the 131 students who showed their University IDs in a YouTube video after the PRI claimed the protesters had actually been "paid agitators." The students are pressing for a freer election and a more diverse media. The protests are yet more evidence of voter disenchantment, particularly among Mexico's youth.

Anyone looking to spin out either an optimistic or a pessimistic scenario in Mexico in the coming years has no shortage of material to work with. Unimaginably grotesque murders co-exist with pockets of stunning economic and cultural vitality. Contradictions abound. But no one should be fooled by the circumspect, cautious campaign. The political climate the new president will inherit will be anything but dull.

ANTONIO NAVA/AFP/Getty Images

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