Mexico: Seven reasons why the PRI could defeat López Obrador

Will radical Andrés Manuel López Obrador sweep to power in Mexico in 2018? AMLO has pledged a host of populist measures, including a referendum on whether to reverse reforms that have attracted billions in energy investment from the likes of Chevron, ExxonMobil, Total and BHP Billiton. Business is at risk.

Or is it? Since the start of the year, many pundits have predicted that AMLO will win, judging by his consistent lead in the polls, and President Enrique Peña Nieto’s hapless record in office. But here are seven reasons why Peña Nieto’s PRI party could hold on to power in the July elections.

Firstly, Peña Nieto has been doing a good job supervising the clean-up after the two earthquakes in September, which killed more than 400 people, and damaged over 120,000 homes in the poverty-stricken southern states of Oaxaca and Chiapas. Appearing compassionate, he has been busy handing out government-funded bank cards each worth up to USD6,500 to help victims rebuild their houses.

He has dismissed accusations of political opportunism, insisting that his genuine priority is reconstruction. It is producing political dividends. A survey by GEA-ISA found that in the six states affected by the earthquakes, 56% approved of Peña Nieto’s response, and 17% said their view of him had improved.

If the reconstruction programme is executed efficiently, with little visible acts of corruption, this could help Peña Nieto recover some lost popularity during his final year in office. Competent government-led reconstruction in Oaxaca and Chiapas—traditional left-wing political territory—could swing votes away from AMLO and boost the chances of Peña Nieto’s successor PRI candidate.

Secondly, mandatory state funding for political parties’ election campaigns next year could be cut by as much as 74% as funds in the 2018 budget are diverted to shore up the USD2.5bn reconstruction bill. This reduction in state funding will affect opposition parties more than the PRI.

Thirdly, Peña Nieto has remained at arm’s length from the political fall-out sparked by the earthquake in Mexico City, governed by Mayor Miguel Angel Mancera of the left-wing PRD, the country’s fourth-largest party. Some of the buildings which collapsed were newly-built, leading many to believe that corrupt inspectors took bribes from unscrupulous builders to ignore violations of anti-seismic construction regulations.

Mancera has had to deal with the controversy, forcing him to delay his planned resignation as mayor to campaign for the presidential nomination of the left-wing PRD. Mancera is no friend of AMLO, but this situation in Mexico City, where voters tend to favour the political left, could also hurt AMLO’s chances.

Fourthly, the PAN, Mexico’s right-wing and third-largest party, is imploding. After losing a vicious internal fight for leadership of the PAN, Margarita Zavala, the most plausible candidate, abandoned the party to run as an independent. While Zavala is likely to obtain the requisite 1m signatures to validate her bid, lacking an established political organisation will handicap her run for the presidency.

And Zavala will not be the only independent candidate: no less than 48 individuals are listed. While only two or three are likely to surpass the threshold to run, more independent candidates suck votes away from AMLO.

The PAN, meanwhile, has no chance of winning power unless it is part of a coalition. Zavala’s departure has left the party adrift and headed by its secretary, Ricardo Anaya, who is intent on capturing the nomination for the Opposition Front, an unholy alliance he has been trying to build with the PRD.

Reason number five as to why AMLO’s chances may be more limited than appear is that the open split in the PAN’s more conservative constituency could favour the PRI. Dismayed PAN voters are much more likely to migrate to the centrist PRI than jump across the political aisle to AMLO.

The PRI knows this, and this explains why the rising star to win Peña Nieto’s nod as the candidate is José Antonio Meade, the Finance Secretary. Meade is appealing to PAN dissidents because he is a technocrat rather than a PRI militant, and was Energy and then Finance Secretary under former PAN president Felipe Calderón.

The sixth reason is that the international context has also changed. AMLO appeared to be the best-placed candidate to capitalise on the nationalist fervour that surged in the wake of US President Donald Trump’s insistence that Mexico pay for a border wall and his pledge to scrap NAFTA. But as Trump remains distracted by other matters, a fiery counter-Trump candidate like AMLO seems less appealing.

And lastly, the seventh reason is that, if history repeats itself, AMLO will be pipped at the post—for the third time. In 2006, the first time AMLO ran for president, he lost by a margin of less than 1%; in his second bid, in 2012, he lost by more than six percentage points, to Peña Nieto.

Neither the earthquakes’ political aftershocks nor any one of these other factors alone will necessarily tip the election in favour of Peña Nieto’s designated successor candidate—but the sum of all these factors probably will. This is because not only is the electoral race tight, but because in Mexico there will is no second-round run-off vote: the candidate who wins the most votes is elected president, even if he or she does not capture an absolute majority.

It’s early days yet, but the stars appear to be aligning in favour of the PRI.