Mexico's recent elections in four states proved that the PRI is not only back--it's ready to move into Los Pinos. The Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI, by its Spanish initials) handily took the governorships of the State of Mexico, Coahuila and Nayarit, and most of the mayoral races in the state of Hidalgo.
The first question I get from the foreign press on these elections is: why would the Mexican people choose to return to a party known for authoritarian rule? It isn't a question I can answer completely, but here are a few considerations.
1) The barometer election on Sunday was by far the State of Mexico governor race. Current governor, Enrique Peña Nieto, had a lot riding on the triumph of PRI candidate Eruviel Avila. He needs his home state and PRI power center as a platform from which to operate the 2012 presidential campaign he has aspired to for years. From numerous reports it appears that the governor was more than willing to revert to traditional PRI practices of manipulating the vote to assure what turned out to be a landslide victory. Electoral institutes are investigating complaints of vote-buying, use of public funds in the campaign, and exceeding spending limits.
2) With the exception of an eleventh-hour order to withdraw prohibited government propaganda, electoral institutions, particularly on the state level, acted slowly if at all to apply elections law and have been criticized as weak and subject to control by governors. The federal institutes also did little to nothing to prevent unfair advantages for the incumbent party (the PRI, in these cases). One important lesson from these elections is that Mexico's system for monitoring and regulating elections is insufficient to assure clean elections. It's vulnerable to manipulation by strong-arm politicians and the PRI political machine. Despite the enormous cost of this system its history of ineffectiveness, which dates back to the rubber-stamping of electoral fraud in the 2006 presidential elections and was demonstrated again last Sunday, casts doubt on its capacity to control vote manipulation in the upcoming federal elections.
3) The PRI has retooled its political machine and is determined to take back the country. The practices revealed in the State of Mexico are a glimpse of what the party will do to make sure that its candidate, likely to be Peña Nieto, wins. Wheeling and dealing votes are familiar practices in Mexican politics, but usually handled discreetly to maintain a semblance of democracy. They came out in the open these past days when Elba Esther Gordillo, head of the teachers' union, described the deals she cut with President Felipe Calderon in 2006 to switch her usual PRI allegiance to Calderon and the PAN. Calderon promised three prominent, and lucrative, public posts for her political lackeys in return for her support.
Offering a cabinet post to members of an electoral coalition is not unheard of. But what did Gordillo promise for her part of the bargain? The votes of the largest union in Latin America, ni mas, ni menos. The National Union of Education Workers (SNTE) is the key component of the PRI vote-buying and electoral coercion machine. That the non-elected, lifetime leader of the union publicly boasts of delivering her members' votes to the highest bidder just goes to show that not only are Mexico's electoral institutions dysfunctional, its political culture is as anti-democratic as ever. Gordillo seems poised to throw her considerable weight behind Peña Nieto in the 2012 elections--another reason why PRI leaders are smiling these days.
What we saw last Sunday, then, was the restoration of a political machine that never really broke down.
4) Voters have low expectations for their vote and for the elections in general. Even acknowledging the impact of electoral dirty tricks, how do we explain how the PRI won over 60% of the vote in Mexico State--a three to one ration compared to its nearest competitor? Why did the population vote to continue the PRI regime in the state?
After having fraud shoved down their throats in 1988 and again in 2006, voters have grown cynical regarding the power of the vote to make change. Some figure if you can get a bag of food or cement for your vote, you're a fool to hold out for an abstract ideal that has rarely if ever translated into reality--much less into food for hungry mouths. Others accept that politics will be defined from above. Still others prefer the mal conocido--the known evil over the unknown evil, thus choosing the vices of the PRI over the possibly more catastrophic effects of being governed by another party. Others find the corrupt exchanges with the PRI more convenient to their interests than the government of the transnational elite led by the PAN.
5) The alternatives to the PRI failed to attract voters. A large part of the revived appeal of the PRI has to do with disenchantment with the other political parties. Two successive PAN presidencies not only showed the party's inability and/or lack of interest in initiating a transition to democracy, they now have immersed the nation in chaos and violence due to the hasty and disastrous launching of the "drug war" against narcotrafficking. Here it is often acknowledged sotto voce that many citizens would prefer a return to a system of agreements between politicians and drug traffickers that at least left society largely out of the equation. Meanwhile, the center-left PRD has torn itself up in internal battles, losing much of its credibility and strength.
The over 56% abstention rate in Mexico State is just one sign of the contempt many voters feel for all of the major political parties.
The elections on July 3 placed the PRI that much closer to retaking the highest post in the nation. It's not that the Mexican populace necessarily likes living under "a perfect dictatorship", as novelist Mario Vargas Llosa famously dubbed the PRI. If things continue on the present path, the lack of options--both economic and political--will be the principal factors that usher in "the return of the dinosaurs". This is not surprising, given that the dinosaurs were never in danger of extinction under the interceding PAN governments.
Laura Carlsen is the director for the Americas Project, based in Mexico City.