Teachers Threaten Elections in Mexico

6 MINS READMar 18, 2015 | 09:17 GMT
Mexico's Teachers Unions Threaten Elections
(Pedro PARDO/AFP/Getty Images)
Family members of the missing 43 normalistas protest in Mexico's Guerrero state March 4, 2015.

Teachers in Guerrero state control the majority of polling stations and are threatening to block voters from participating in Mexico's June 7 general elections. The Guerrero state teachers' union, CETEG, has staged violent demonstrations in protest of Mexico's new education reform, which they allege will disadvantage rural teachers. Their demands are not new, but the movement has gained momentum since CETEG took up the cause of 43 student teachers, known as normalistas, who were abducted and reportedly killed in September. Mexico City has struggled to control the situation and must now decide how to handle elections in the state — and the possibility that they might not happen.

According to Guerrero state's interim governor, CETEG controls 60 percent of the polling stations in the state, giving it substantial influence over the June 7 elections that will select the new federal Chamber of Deputies and the municipal presidents as well as the state's governor. The interim governor's statements support the National Electoral Institute's claims that all voting districts in the state are at risk from interference and that the conditions in the capital, Chilpancingo, are not conducive to fair and peaceful elections. To protect election officials, the institute ordered its personnel in Guerrero state to dress in plain clothes.

Mexico's Teachers Unions Threaten Elections

Mexico's Geopolitical Regions

The abduction of 43 normalistas by gunmen in Iguala on Sept. 26 motivated CETEG to stage violent demonstrations throughout the state. Several other trade unions and social organizations have participated, but CETEG has been the driving force.

It is not the first time the group has threatened to disrupt the electoral process in Guerrero state. In 2008, the teachers union, with the support of normalista organizations, carried out disruptive demonstrations while threatening to boycott state-level elections. The group's momentum has grown since then, along with the frequency of disruptive acts. As with the normalista-linked protests that took place in Mexico City during the last quarter of 2014, the organizations participating in the Guerrero state demonstrations have used the students' disappearances to bring attention to their own problems with the administration.

Outstanding Grievances

Many of CETEG's grievances with the government revolve around the passage of education reform, which directly challenges the power of teacher unions, particularly in Mexico's southwestern states. The group is especially upset over reforms that remove unions' power to determine the number of paid teaching positions and select who fills them. Now it is demanding that the federal government guarantee its members' teaching positions.

Mexico City has thus far shown considerable restraint when dealing with protests associated with the missing normalistas. This restraint is on account of the tremendous political sensitivity related to the incident and the increased international attention focused on Mexico's security situation, government corruption and allegations of widespread human rights abuses. Though demonstrations in Guerrero state have disrupted the local economy and government, federal troops have maintained their distance from protesters to avoid fueling further unrest, with the exception of a small number of occasions.

This passive stance has enabled protesters to operate with relative impunity. In February, they took two Coca Cola FEMSA employees hostage to force Chilpancingo authorities to negotiate the release of imprisoned activists. If Mexico City does not arrive at a negotiated settlement with dissident organizations or successfully quell unrest through more aggressive federal troop operations, protesters are likely to disrupt the electoral process in Guerrero state by preventing voters in many parts of the state from participating.

Though the Sept. 26 incident triggered unrest in Mexico, the issues run deeper and are bound to the geopolitics that constrain Mexico City. Since protests began, other groups in Mexico's southwestern states, including Michoacan and Oaxaca, have demonstrated their solidarity with the Guerrero state protesters, albeit in a more restrained manner. Currently there are no indications that elections in Michoacan or Oaxaca are in jeopardy. However, that could change. CETEG and organizations outside of Guerrero, such as the National Coordinator of Education Workers chapters in Oaxaca, have close relationships. Monitoring any new developments in these states will be important as the elections draw closer. If voting is disrupted across the region, Mexico City would face a political crisis.

National Implications

Because Mexico's June elections will decide all 500 seats of its lower house, stalling or blocking polls in Guerrero state could pose institutional complications for the legislature. Voters in single-member districts choose 300 of the chamber's deputies, nine of which come from Guerrero state. The remaining 200 will be filled by Mexico's registered political parties, each of which are awarded a number proportional to the overall votes they receive nationally. Should protesters disrupt elections in Guerrero state to the point where the results cannot be officially recognized, the national political system would have to adjust for the state's absence in the lower house. Moreover, the situation would not bode well for Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto, whose popularity has already declined following the developments in the southwest.

Should demonstrators manage to disrupt the elections, Mexico's leftist parties would take a blow to their voter bases, especially the Democratic Revolutionary Party, which has maintained a stronghold in the state for the past decade. Of Guerrero state's nine seats in the Chamber of Deputies, eight of the elected officials belong to the party, and the others belong to one of its offshoots, the Citizens' Movement party. The last elected governor of Guerrero state, Angel Aguirre, was also a member of the Democratic Revolutionary Party, but protesters forced him to resign in October.

Preventing Electoral Chaos

Mexico can take three courses to deal with the protesters in Guerrero state. It can try to negotiate with the protesters, take a more aggressive stance using federal troops to quell them or continue its hands off approach and hope the elections go smoothly enough to not come under question, nationally or internationally. The second two options carry big risks for the federal government. Deploying federal troops could escalate the situation and bring scrutiny to the country, which is already facing criticism for its human rights record. If the government allows the democratic process to be disrupted with little intervention, it will undoubtedly face criticism for being ineffective.

As for negotiating with demonstrators, the two camps may be too far apart to reconcile. Ultimately, CETEG wants to restore the authority that was stripped away by the education reform. However, the reform is widely popular and Mexico City is reluctant to make concessions that could be perceived as violations of the new laws. If Mexico City agrees to the teachers' demands, Pena Nieto risks political backlash from the factions that advocated education reform in the first place.

In February, teachers unions in Oaxaca were given the right to conduct their own job promotions. Advocates of the reform law questioned the legality of the agreement and have repeatedly called for the interior ministry to explain the decision.

Moreover, it appears the government will not be able to meet the protesters' demands for the missing normalistas to be returned. The topic is a sensitive one for Mexico City, which maintains that it has conducted a thorough investigation and is handling the case according to standard protocol.

At this point, it is too early to tell how Mexico City will address the threats to the Guerrero state elections. CETEG's ultimatum may never materialize; similar threats by the organization have fizzled in the past. However, if the union is able to appeal to its partners in neighboring states, they could disrupt elections on a regional scale, making polls unreliable and burdening the government with yet another blow to its popularity — and possibly its legitimacy.

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