Gubernatorial elections will take place in 12 of Mexico's 31 states on June 5. These will provide a measure of the popularity of the ruling Revolutionary Institutional Party (PRI) in advance of the 2018 presidential race. If opinion polls are accurate, the PRI, which has historically dominated state-level elections, holds an advantage in seven states, but its grasp on the rest is far from solid.
Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto's approval rating is in decline, falling from 55 percent three years ago to around 30 percent now, a drop that could harm his party's chances of retaining the presidency. Additionally, the fragmentation of the political landscape in Mexico has created a situation in which a number of competing parties stand a chance of walking away with a significant segment of the popular vote in 2018. The PRI is running against the more conservative National Action Party (PAN), the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) and even the newer Morena party, headed by former presidential candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador. Over the past three decades, presidential elections in Mexico have become increasingly competitive, something that was simply not the case during the PRI's dominance of the political system from the early 1930s to the 1990s.
But the result of the June 5 vote, which also includes races for state legislative and mayoral seats, is not always a reliable indicator of the presidential election. For example, PRI candidates lost in the 2000 and 2006 presidential elections, even though party members held a majority of the governorships across Mexico. And even if the PAN, PRD or Morena make headway on June 5, the PRI still stands a decent chance of securing another presidential term. This is because the parties contesting for the presidency in 2018 need only a plurality of the overall general electorate to win. A major shift in the traditional party loyalties of the electorate in each state could mean changes that would influence the presidential election. But since Mexico lacks an electoral college — instead holding a direct popular vote to elect the president — control of individual states matters less than overall numbers when determining who will win. Consequently, a PRI candidate could win the presidency even if he or she garnered only slightly more than a third of the popular vote — a showing in keeping with its performance in the 2012 election.
The June 5 gubernatorial vote will be held in the states of Aguascalientes, Chihuahua, Durango, Hidalgo, Oaxaca, Puebla, Quintana Roo, Sinaloa, Tamaulipas, Tlaxcala, Veracruz and Zacatecas. If political allegiances in some states alter significantly, it could be a harbinger of further political shifts at a national level. But even in Mexico's increasingly fragmented domestic political scene, it is the three main traditional parties — PRI, PAN and PRD — that historically hold the most sway and will likely garner the majority of the vote in 2018. These parties just need to eke out a bare plurality to secure the presidency, and they are clearly still capable of doing so.