What’s Happening With the Mexican Elections, Explained

As a famously corrupt party returns to power, student protests have gained steam and sparked a vote recount.

Thousands marched in Mexico City on July 2 in opposition to newly elected Enrique Peña Nieto.Charles Mostoller/Zuma

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The basics: On July 1, our neighbors to the south held a presidential election. In a stinging rebuke to the conservative National Action Party (PAN) and President Felipe Calderón—whose six-year term has been marked by an increasingly violent drug war and a lagging economy—Mexicans elected Enrique Peña Nieto, a former governor from the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which controlled Mexico from 1929 to 2000. Like Calderón in 2006, Peña Nieto received less than 40 percent of the vote but still beat Andrés Manuel López Obrador, an old-school leftist from the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) and former mayor of Mexico City. (Josefina Vázquez Mota, the PAN candidate, finished third.) While the result was long seen as a foregone conclusion (Peña Nieto led in the polls throughout the election), López Obrador closed the gap in the final weeks of the campaign thanks in part to a growing student movement fed up with the Televisa-TV Azteca television duopoly, which runs 95 percent of the country’s stations and which a June 7 Guardian report claimed favored PRI candidates over their PRD counterparts.

What’s happened since the election: In Peña Nieto’s victory speech, he promised to try to meet the demands of those that voted against him and applauded the election for being an authentic democratic fiesta. López Obrador, who garnered 31 percent of the vote, was quick to write off the election as a sham, alleging that it “was plagued with irregularities before, during, and after the process.” Protesters, many of them belonging to the mostly student movement YoSoy132 (see below), took to the streets in Mexico City and across the country the next day in an “anti-fraud” march. Videos of the protests flooded YouTube; in one, marchers’ demands in an underpass—México votó, Peña no ganó!—translate to: “Mexico voted, Peña didn’t win!”

In the days after the election, during what’s now being dubbed “SorianaGate,” the arrival of hundreds of shoppers with prepaid gift cards—supposedly handed out by the PRI campaign—at the Soriana grocery chain around Mexico City sparked suspicion that the PRI had bought votes, though Peña Nieto denied his party’s involvement, questioning the credibility of online videos of the Soriana shoppers and claiming they were orchestrated. On July 5, Mexico’s Federal Electoral Institute (IFE) announced that it planned to recount votes at more than half of the country’s polling stations, citing inconsistencies. The final results, including the recount, could be in by this Sunday, but the IFE has until September 6 to declare a winner, and the recount could be long and expensive.

Why are so many people upset about the PRI’s return to power? For many Mexicans, the PRI evokes memories of authoritarianism, corruption, and cronyism. (There’s a reason, after all, why writer Mario Vargas Llosa called the PRI “the perfect dictatorship” and said Mexico would be “a country of masochists” if it voted the party back to the presidency.) Among other things, the PRI was responsible for the 1968 Tlatelolco massacre, the infamous 1988 election fraud, and a variety of neoliberal economic reforms described by William Finnegan in his recent New Yorker article on the Mexican drug war:

[I]t was the PRI that presided over the privatization of more than a thousand state companies during the nineteen-eighties and nineties. Carlos Salinas, during his sexenio, privatized hundreds of companies, as well as Mexico’s banking system, turning a lucky circle of his friends into billionaires. This creation of a new economic elite, with effective monopolies in fields such as transportation, mining, and telecommunications, resembles the creation, around the same time, of the new crony-capitalist oligarchy in Russia. And in Mexico nearly all its beneficiaries owe their fortunes to the PRI, not the PAN.

Who is Peña Nieto? The joke is that for a candidate whose campaign slogan was Tú me conoces (“You know me”), very few Mexicans seem to have a good feel for the 45-year-old Peña Nieto, who served as governor of the state of Mexico from 2005-11. He’s often branded as a made-for-TV candidate whose good looks and telenovela star wife, Angélica Rivera, hide a lack of depth and serious thought. Public gaffes like his slip-up at the Guadalajara International Book Fair—when Peña Nieto was unable to name three books that have influenced him—haven’t helped matters. He has argued that he is among a new generation of PRI leaders; in a July 2 New York Times op-ed, he wrote: “I reject the practices of the past, in the same way I seek to move forward from the political gridlock of the present. My generation’s objective is not ideology or patronage, but measurable success at liberating Mexicans from poverty.” But charges that he paid Televisa for positive coverage suggest those practices of the past are still in play.

What does his election mean for the drug war? In the Times op-ed, Peña Nieto briefly explained his anti-narco plan:

I want to address the issue of organized crime and drug trafficking head-on. There can be neither negotiation nor a truce with criminals…

What must be improved is coordination among federal, state and municipal crime-fighting authorities. I will create a 40,000-person National Gendarmerie, a police force similar to those in countries like Colombia, Italy and France, to focus on the most violent rural areas. I will expand the federal police by at least 35,000 officers and bolster intelligence-gathering and analysis. I will consolidate the state and municipal police forces and provide greater federal oversight, to crack down on corruption within their ranks. I will propose comprehensive criminal law reform.

Still, many aren’t buying it, and the PRI’s past dealmaking with druglords has some in Washington concerned about the incoming president’s ability to keep the violence from spreading even further. With more than 50,000 people killed in Mexico since Calderón sicced the military on the cartels (including eight journalists this year alone), Peña Nieto had better act fast.

What is #YoSoy132? When a campaigning Peña Nieto visted Mexico City’s Ibero-American University on May 11, crowds of students greeted him with boos, interrupting his speech. After accusations by PRI supporters that the student protests had been organized by outsiders, 131 outraged Ibero students produced a soon-to-be viral video dispelling any outside involvement and expressing their disapproval of Peña Nieto, heading up what some soon began calling the “Mexican Spring.” YoSoy132, meaning “I am the 132nd face of this movement,” became the title of a student initiative which spread out of the wealthier private universities and into the public ones, manifesting itself through social media, demonstrations, and creative protest. Cardboard box TV headpieces—representing the collusion between mainstream media and politics—dotted the gatherings, worn by students disgusted with Televisa and TV Azteca. The students succeeded in pressuring Televisa and TV Azteca to show the second presidential debate on their main channels, and they went on to organize a third presidential debate broadcast via YouTube, though Peña Nieto refused to show.

Students from 35 schools held their first assembly on May 30 to outline initial goals, including rebelling against media manipulation, strengthening the connection between private and public universities, and refusing the imposition of Peña Nieto. In late June, the movement established a more permanent physical presence outside of the Monument to the Revolution in Mexico City, calling itself the #AcampadaRevolución, or Camping Revolution. The day after the election, these protesters published a video announcing they were monitoring the election and helping to report voter impediments. The movement has plans to keep organizing daily in different parts of the country, including for a national convention on July 14 and 15.

Tweeter @Soy132MX calls YoSoy132 “Apolitical, anti-neoliberal, paficist, from a student base, social, political, autonomous, and humanist.” The movement has also been praised for uniting those on the left and right, as well as shaking up apathy among youth. In a great overview of the movement, the New York Times‘s Damien Cave digests how YoSoy132 compares to other recent political groundswells:

Whereas the demands of the Arab Spring were more clear, experts say in Mexico there is nothing limiting the movement more than its multiplicity of demands and adherence to a horizontal management structure that makes everyone and no one a leader, similar to the Occupy movement. 

Notable offshoots of YoSoy132 include MúsicosConYoSoy132, which gathers videos, such as the “Right of Birth” below, of rallying cries for the movement; YoSoy133, made up of precocious Mexican teens too young to vote but eager to convey support; GeneraciónMX, a disgruntled splinter group which blames YoSoy132 for becoming directionless and partisan; and several YoSoy132 international chapters, including in New York City and San Francisco

Vice.com produced a neat subtitled documentary about the YoSoy132 movement, which includes interviews with some of the original 131 founders and footage of the first student protests of Peña Nieto’s speech at Ibero-American University. 

How do I follow what’s happening in real time?

  • Twitter: The #YoSoy132 Twitter universe is hectic to keep up with, and you’ll need some Spanish to be able to follow along, but it’s still the place to go as a general hub for information about the student movement. #Fraude2012 has emerged as a platform for the debate about election fraud, with appearances from people posing as Anonymous and as the definitive voice of YoSoy132. Truthdig has a nice piece about the musicians united for YoSoy132, who you can follow with the #músicosyosoy132 tag. As far as English-language tweeters, check out the NYT‘s @damiencave, the Los Angeles Times‘ Daniel Hernandez (@longdrivesouth), Reuters’ @gabstargardter, and blogger David Sasaki (@oso). For you Spanish speakers, follow Univision’s @jorgeramosnews, as well as the weekly Proceso (@revistaproceso).
  • Blogs: There’s Hernandez’s blog, Intersections, as well as Narco News, which has English coverage by Mexicans and Americans at the border. Also, see Animal Político and Democracia Deliberada (both in Spanish), the latter managed by a group of young progressives hoping to bring the PRD into the 21st century.


UPDATE, Friday, July 6, 12:12 p.m. ET (Ian Gordon): Even though the IFE concluded last night that Peña Nieto did, indeed, win the election, López Obrador refuses to concede, saying of SorianaGate, “The magnitude of the vote-buying is becoming apparent: Billions of pesos and millions of votes bought.” According to Bloomberg’s Nacha Cattan and Eric Martin, the PRD candidate will hold another press conference today at noon. More bomb-throwing to come?’

UPDATE 2, Friday, July 6, 12:28 p.m. ET (Ian Gordon): El Universal reported that, with 100 percent of ballots counted, Peña Nieto received 38.21 percent of the vote (19,219,919 votes). López Obrador finished 6.62 percentage points back at 31.59 percent (15,891,107 votes). Vázquez Mota finished third at 25.41 percent. As the New York Times’ Damien Cave tweeted: “Game over. Officially.” More Cave:

UPDATE 3, Friday, July 6, 2:19 p.m. ET (Maddie Oatman): In a midday press conference, López Obrador directly accused the “PRI governors” for being the principle operators of the SorianaGate vote-buying scandal. “This wasn’t the case of one municipality, one town, but instead states, regions, more than anything where the PRI governs,” López Obrador alleged. “The election was totally falsified.” 

UPDATE 4, Sunday, July 8, 3:25 p.m. ET (Maddie Oatman): More than fifty thousand people took to the streets of Mexico City yesterday in a march to protest last week’s election of Peña Nieto, the AP reports. Plastic grocery bags from the Soriana chain covered the heads of statues in a critique of the voter bribery scandal embroiling Peña Nieto’s campaign, though the new president-elect’s spokesperson said SorianaGate was just a “theatrical representation” organized by the left. There was confusion about whether YoSoy132 organized the march in the days leading up to it; a message released by the student movement claimed it was not behind the event, according to the Mexican paper La Jornada and YoSoy132’s “official” website

UPDATE 5, Friday, July 13, 1:24 p.m. ET (Maddie Oatman): López Obrador filed a legal challenge yesterday alleging that Peña Nieto bought votes, invalidating the recent election. PRI party leader Pedro Joaquín Coldwell responded to Obrador’s claims by remarking: “The only problem with this election is having had a proven and repeatedly bad loser,” reported Bloomberg

UPDATE 6, Tuesday, July 17, 3:38 p.m. ET (Ian Gordon): Several days after López Obrador’s legal challenge, the PRI has begun to mount its defense, EFE reported Tuesday. Party chairman Pedro Joaquín Coldwell told reporters, “The only fraud in this election is wanting to invalidate the legitimate, free, and secret votes of more than 50 million Mexicans without evidence or legal reasons.”

UPDATE 7, Thursday, July 19, 1:32 ET (Ian Gordon): On top of his claims of PRI vote-buying and ignoring campaign spending limits, López Obrador alleged Wednesday in a press conference that the PRI funded its campaign with laundered money. He told reporters that the PRI creaetd shell companies to move money into party accounts, and that more than $7.6 million was spent on prepaid debit cards to hand out to would-be voters. In a statement, the PRI denied López Obrador’s claim, saying, “He demanded a recount and when it confirmed the result, he changed his argument to massive vote buying, which did not stand, and now he is launching another unlikely charge of money laundering.”


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