It is easy enough to understand why U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump would visit Mexico City, as he did on Wednesday. In the midst of a heated campaign season, a delicate shade of moderation has been applied to his immigration and trade policies. Trump also wanted to appear more statesmanlike by engaging in a bilateral sitdown with a head of state. During the visit, Trump emphasized the mutual benefits of the U.S.-Mexico relationship and avoided going into detail on his earlier proposal to cut remittances to Mexico to pay for a wall on the border. Instead of a U.S. versus Mexico paradigm, "hemisphere" was the buzzword as Trump repeated several times the broader need to keep industry and jobs in North America.
It is much more difficult to understand what Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto expected to gain from such a high-profile visit. As U.S. political pundits were busy determining whether Trump's trip would help or hurt him in the polls, Pena Nieto was quickly buried with criticism across the border. From the point of view of most Mexicans, their president, who was already polling at a record low 23 percent before the visit, was pouring salt on the wound by providing a stage for Trump to legitimize policies that are deeply unsettling to many Mexicans.
Putting ourselves in the shoes of the Mexican president, we can understand why his government would be so keen to keep a dialogue open with both U.S. presidential candidates. Mexico's economic health and security are deeply intertwined with the United States. Regardless of who ends up in the White House, Mexico City needs a close working relationship with Washington. This is a big part of why Mexico has been scrambling over the past year to slot in officials with experience in Washington and in public relations, officials who have stronger relationships with U.S. congressmen, to fill the roles of ambassador to the United States and undersecretary for North America. Mexico City simply has zero certainty on how the race will turn out. With the threat of trade protectionism looming over the U.S.-Mexico border, Mexico needed to build on its connections in Capitol Hill and keep a line of communication open as it prepares for either scenario in the U.S. presidential election.
But there are quieter and less politically charged ways of developing that dialogue; Pena Nieto's choice to host Trump will at least temporarily hurt his party as Mexico prepares for its own tumultuous race to the 2018 presidential election. The next Mexican election could be the country's most competitive yet, with the vote split across four main parties: the center-left Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), the center-right National Action Party (PAN), the left-wing Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) and the PRD's left-wing offshoot National Regeneration Movement (Morena). Ever since PAN ended PRI's 66-year monopoly in the 2000 election, power in Mexican politics has become much more diffused, making a variety of alliances possible. PRI and PAN have been roughly neck and neck in most opinion polls while Morena, under leftist leader Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, has steadily built its strength in third place. PAN is eager to displace PRI once again and has flirted with the idea of aligning with the left-leaning PRD to improve its chances. At the same time, Morena and PRD have grown closer and could forge a more ideologically coherent left-wing alliance to try to take on Mexico's traditional political heavyweights in 2018. Seizing on strong anti-establishment sentiment, some candidates may try to present themselves as independents while still drawing patronage from their parent party.
Low oil prices and a strengthened dollar have hurt Mexico economically, though the country has weathered the downturn thanks to a strong manufacturing center that is closely linked to the United States. Even a hint of trade protectionism from the United States, particularly in the auto sector, would jeopardize Mexico's ability to stabilize its economy through tougher economic times. Economic hardship and a staggering gap between the uber-wealthy and poor has created widespread disillusion among the Mexican public against traditional parties, which are seen by many as too corrupted to reform.
These conditions are what make the left, feeding off a strong anti-establishment current, a formidable force going into the 2018 election. Pena Nieto cannot necessarily be faulted for trying to open a dialogue with the U.S. presidential candidates, but PRI is already facing a complex and highly competitive political landscape. Publicly throwing himself into the U.S. political fighting ring is going to only strengthen his party's opponents in an intensifying electoral race.