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.



If at First You Don't Succeed…

The Palestinians are having another go at the United Nations. Will this time be as disastrous as the last?

The Palestinians may appeal to the United Nations for statehood. Again.

That was the message out of Ramallah on Sunday, June 24, when Fatah, the dominant Palestinian faction in the West Bank, concluded a meeting of its congress.

If you listened closely, you might have heard a collective head slap halfway around the world at Foggy Bottom. The U.S. State Department fought hard last year to derail this very process at the annual U.N. General Assembly meeting in Manhattan. The Palestinians delivered their request, but failed to garner enough support in the Security Council, thanks to heavy U.S. and Canadian lobbying. U.S. diplomats then prevailed upon the Palestinians to shelve their application for nonmember observer status, which would have granted them some of the rights afforded to sovereign states, including the ability to sue the Israelis for war crimes at the International Criminal Court in The Hague.

The Palestinians backed down last year. This year, they may not take no for an answer.

Although deposed Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak once single-handedly reined in Palestinian adventurism and prodded Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas back to the negotiating table, his successor, Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohamed Morsi, may not follow suit. To put it mildly, encouraging diplomacy with the Israelis has never been part of the Brotherhood's platform.

Even if the military retains full control of foreign policy in Egypt (a likely scenario for the foreseeable future), it is still doubtful that the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces will stand in the way of the Palestinian statehood campaign. Indeed, it's doubtful that any Arab state will. With the Arab Spring in full bloom, regional supporters of Palestinian-Israeli diplomacy have long since scurried for cover.

Abbas now cites Israeli settlement activity as the reason he refuses to negotiate. It was never a red line for him in the past, but it's now a convenient formula for him that can't lose. Palestinians support it. And you hear no complaints from the region, where anti-Israel rhetoric is growing increasingly strident.

According to Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat, the PLO, which is leading the charge to Turtle Bay, is now following the lead of a different regional player: Qatar. In late March, Erekat announced that the Palestinian leadership had reached an agreement with Doha to try again at the U.N. Other Palestinian insiders confirm that the Qataris are leading the charge, and one former official says they're even funding the legal effort for the PLO, producing analysis on the costs and benefits of the statehood initiative.

Throughout the spring, in one way or another, Palestinian officials affirmed this new, yet familiar strategy. For example, Abbas told Tunisian representatives as much in late April, and an unnamed Palestinian official echoed the same sentiments to Xinhua in May. Citing this anonymous source, the Chinese news agency reported that Abbas was "drumming up support for another battle in the United Nations to get a recognition of an independent Palestinian state."

Behind the scenes, the Palestinians have even tried to lay a foundation for the coming showdown in September. Hillary Zaken of the Times of Israel first reported that Abbas was angling to use the U.N.'s Rio+20 conference on sustainable development, held June 20 to 22 in Brazil, "to advance the PA's status in the eyes of the international community." Indeed, Abbas wanted Palestine to be identified as nothing less than a state at the conference, despite the fact that the U.N. had not yet done so. The Palestinian ambassador to Brazil, Ibrahim Alzeben, later admitted that he was angling for "full-status participation," while Israel, the United States, and Canada were reportedly fighting this on the sidelines, and apparently prevailed.

Similarly, in early June, the same three countries cried foul when Palestinian U.N. observer Riyad Mansour was treated as a representative of a state during a meeting of signatories to the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea. As the U.N.'s online summary account notes, the Canadian delegation protested where the Palestinian observer was seated, noting that it "did not recognize a Palestinian State" and that the seating arrangement "might create a 'misleading impression.'"

The Palestinians, notwithstanding such resistance from the Great White North, actually have broad international support for their initiative. The PLO's Negotiations Affairs Department claims that 128 countries back the notion of a Palestinian state, and the number could be as high as 140. Either way, this is enough support at the General Assembly, in the words of Abbas during a recent trip to Paris, "to obtain the status of nonmember state, as is the case for the Vatican."

But Abbas will need to weigh this international support against the wall of resistance he's getting from Washington. In an interview with the Saudi Okaz newspaper, Erekat said that U.S. President Barack Obama's administration was threatening to suspend aid and close down the PLO mission in Washington if the Palestinians returned to the U.N.

Obama cannot afford to stand back and watch the Palestinians play for statehood as he campaigns for his reelection. If the Palestinians make it across the finish line at the General Assembly, Obama's domestic critics will charge that he threw Israel under the bus.

According to Palestinian Foreign Minister Riyad al-Maliki, the Obama administration has instructed the Palestinians to sit tight until after the presidential election. Abbas has since expressed unease about going back to the U.N. before November. But he also has his own considerations at home, where he's under fire on a few fronts.

For one, his spat with the rival Hamas faction is deeply unpopular. While Abbas continues to pay lip service to reconciliation with the Islamist group that overran Gaza in 2007, most Palestinians realize that the likelihood of a unity government is next to nil. With the Muslim Brotherhood having won the Egyptian presidency, Hamas (a Brotherhood splinter) believes it has gained more leverage, and it is therefore even less likely to compromise with Abbas on the terms of a unity government.

No less important a factor is Abbas's witch hunt for his political foes. In the past few months, he has gone after longtime allies of former Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat, including Mohammad Dahlan and Mohammed Rashid, charging them with corruption. Abbas's enemies have fired back, alleging that Abbas is himself guilty of wrongdoing, ranging from maintaining illicit slush funds in Jordan to illegally influencing the Palestinian judiciary. With accusations flying on a daily basis, Abbas has found himself knee-deep in muck of his own creation.

It may be months before things quiet down. In the meantime, Abbas knows he has to do something to shore up his leadership. Even if he escapes judgment on corruption, he is now -- in the midst of the Arab Spring -- already long past his legitimate presidential term, which officially expired in January 2009. He knows that Arab populations continue to challenge their leaders over political and economic stagnation. He can always blame Israel for the woes of the Palestinian people, but the argument only goes so far.

Abbas, now 77, smokes more than a pack of cigarettes a day, and he is keenly aware of the passing of time. He has failed to deliver peace. He has failed to deliver unity. Statehood may be his last opportunity to leave any meaningful legacy.

September may be his moment. Again. But it may also be the moment where Washington blocks him. Again.