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Feb 16, 2017 | 18:58 GMT

Why Mexico's Main Political Parties Are Moving to Quash the Competition

Why Mexico's Main Political Parties Are Moving to Quash the Competition
(JOE RAEDLE/Newsmakers)

The nature of political power in Mexico is changing, and the country's three major parties are struggling to keep up. A representative of the opposition National Action Party (PAN) announced on Feb. 15 that the party had presented a proposal to Congress to add a runoff vote to Mexico's presidential election. If the bill passes, it will require first- and second-place candidates to face off against each other in the event that neither garners a certain level of popular support (in all likelihood, half of the vote). In a country where no president has won a clear majority in nearly three decades, such a setup would be guaranteed to make Mexican politics less competitive — and more contentious.

This is not the first time Mexican lawmakers have tried to reform the country's electoral process. In 1998, the PAN put forth a similar proposal ahead of elections in 2000, which it ultimately won. But calls for change have grown louder over the past two decades as Mexico's three main parties — the PAN, the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) and the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) — have steadily weakened. Thanks to corruption scandals, economic downturns and defections, the once-dominant PRI has lost considerable ground to its rivals in the polls. Now no political party can easily claim more than a third of the public's support, and the country's last two presidents won office with less than 40 percent of the vote.

The diffusion of political power is no small matter for Mexican policymakers because it makes governing the country much harder. As the PRI has lost its standing in Mexico's political scene, its victory in elections is no longer a foregone conclusion. With a transfer of power now a real possibility every six years, opposition parties have fewer reasons to support the ruling party's policies without the promise of greater incentives. President Enrique Pena Nieto, in turn, has been forced to forge delicate alliances with the centrist PAN and several smaller parties to ensure support for his most important policy initiatives, including the 2013 energy reform package. Since those reforms were passed, however, Pena Nieto has had less and less success in rallying his competitors behind his agenda. Now a lame duck president, his task of pushing controversial measures — such as a renegotiated NAFTA deal — through Congress will only get tougher if the legislature is mired in a heated debate on electoral reform.

Of course, there is another angle to the PAN's latest play that shouldn't be overlooked. It is no coincidence that the party has proposed a runoff round of voting as National Regeneration Movement (Morena) candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador is surging in the polls. Capitalizing on rising populism and discontent with the PRI's rule, including the president's perceived failure to respond to U.S. President Donald Trump's vocal criticism of Mexico, Lopez Obrador has raked in about 33 percent of popular support, according to El Financiero's latest poll. Should he win the initial election in 2018, a second round of voting would give the candidate ranking just behind him one last chance to defeat him. (For example, people who voted for the PRI or PAN in the first round could throw their weight behind Lopez Obrador's competitor in the second round, denying Morena's candidate the win.) In the longer term, moreover, a two-round electoral process would buy flagging parties such as the PRI and PAN time to hone their competitive edge against up-and-coming challengers like Morena.

Still, amending Mexico's election laws is not easy. The PAN's proposal, which will probably receive support from the PRI but doubtless encounter pushback from other opposition parties, could require a constitutional amendment that two-thirds of Congress would have to approve. Together, the PRI and PAN probably have enough representation in both houses of the legislature to achieve that, but they would need the help of smaller parties such as the Ecologist Green Party of Mexico. Negotiating those parties' support could be a time-consuming endeavor, especially since Morena — which would likely interpret the reform as a threat to its upcoming presidential bid — will do whatever it can to block the bill. In fact, Lopez Obrador could incite protests against the proposal in an effort to stall its progress. Even if the measure makes it through Congress, it must also pass muster with state legislatures if it requires a constitutional amendment, adding another set of hurdles for the reform to overcome in the narrow window left before the election.

Regardless of the latest proposal's fate, the dispersal of political power is something all of Mexico's parties will have to come to terms with eventually. Because even if the PRI and PAN manage to fend off the rise of smaller rivals such as Morena for now, they will not be able to hold their new competitors at bay forever.

Why Mexico's Main Political Parties Are Moving to Quash the Competition
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