Mexico's centrist Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) on Dec. 17 announced that former Mexico state Gov. Enrique Pena Nieto would be its official nominee for the July 1, 2012, presidential election
. Pena Nieto's opponent from the leftist Revolutionary Democratic Party (PRD) is former Federal District Mayor Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador. The ruling National Action Party (PAN) has yet to name its candidate, but it is likely to choose Josefina Vazquez Mota. November polling from Consulta Mitofsky showed the PRI leading with 40 percent, followed by the PAN with 21 percent, the PRD with 17 percent and 22 percent undecided. Polling for individual candidates showed Pena Nieto with a 43 percent approval rating and Lopez Obrador (before he became the PRD's official candidate) around 20 percent. Vazquez held a 52 percent approval rating in the PAN, ahead of intra-party rivals Ernesto Cordero and Santiago Creel. In an environment characterized by skyrocketing violence, the ruling PAN is at an extreme disadvantage in this election cycle. The PRI is currently leading in the polls, but a united effort from the left could make the PRD competitive in the election.
The National Action Party
The PAN has lost much credibility as a result of the conservatively estimated 50,000 violent deaths attributed to the ongoing fight against the cartels, and Mexicans have been signaling that they want to see a new party in control of the government. President Felipe Calderon had been hoping to name Cordero as his successor in the tradition of past Mexican presidents, but the popularity of longtime PAN politician Vazquez among both the public and the party's political elite pushed Calderon to shift his support to her. No matter who the PAN chooses as its candidate, their campaign will suffer from the legacy of 12 years of PAN rule characterized by an uncertain national economic environment and escalating violence. Furthermore, the PAN can no longer claim to be the party coming in from the outside — a position from which the PAN successfully unseated the PRI after 70 years of rule in 2000.
The Institutional Revolutionary Party
Pena Nieto is kicking off the presidential race at a considerable advantage. He has projected a carefully cultivated charismatic persona, has excellent relationships with Mexico's major businessmen, media moguls and the core voters of the PRI and is generally well respected as a strong decision maker. Although the official campaign season will begin in late March, it has long been clear that Pena Nieto would be the PRI candidate. Pena Nieto is currently maintaining his popularity — but not without difficulty. His opponents likely will point to gaffes such as a recent interview in which he was unable to recall his favorite books, as well as darker scandals from his past.
The Revolutionary Democratic Party
Though currently behind in the polls, the PRD cannot yet be discounted, and Lopez Obrador, as the representative of Mexico's left, likely will pose the strongest challenge to Pena Nieto. A strong proponent of leftist reform in Mexico, Lopez Obrador has a long history in Mexican politics. After his loss in the 2006 elections to Calderon, Lopez Obrador denounced the results, declared himself the legitimate president of Mexico, and embarked on a yearslong tour of the country with his declared government. In the process, Lopez Obrador radicalized his position, moving to the far left of the political spectrum and creating a rift within the PRD. This rift seriously weakened the party over the past five years, leaving it with control over only a few governorships, which are a key aspect of gaining power in Mexico. Some 20 Mexican states have PRI governors that can wield their funding and political influence to the benefit of their candidate. Similarly, the PAN's control over federal institutions and their budgets will make it possible for them to influence social expenditures to the benefit of their candidate. With only three states — Chiapas, Guerrero and likely Oaxaca (with a PRD/PAN alliance government) — and the Federal District headed by friendly PRD operatives, Lopez Obrador will be at a disadvantage. However, in spite of this setback and the political splits caused by his reaction to the 2006 loss, Lopez Obrador was an effective and highly popular mayor of Mexico City from 2000-2005 and retains significant support and credibility as a voice for Mexico's political left. A crucial event for the left occurred when current Mexico City Mayor Marcelo Ebrard decided in mid-November not to enter the presidential race as a PRD candidate. Had Ebrard — whose well-respected record as mayor would have made him a popular presidential candidate — entered the race, the competition between the two would have further divided the PRD and likely knocked the left out of serious competition in the presidential election and reduced the party's chances of gaining seats in the legislature. With the PRD appearing to be united behind Lopez Obrador, who has also reduced his inflammatory rhetoric and taken a more conciliatory approach to Mexico's varied power centers, the left has a credible chance of appealing to Mexico's approximately 50 million people living in poverty by promising greater attention to social welfare. While the PRI remains firmly in the lead, a united left under Lopez Obrador will prove to be a powerful force in this election.