MEXICO CITY — Polls show that centre-left opposition leader Enrique Peña Nieto is likely to easily win the July 1 presidential elections and put an end to 12 years of centre-right governments, but after several days in this country I haven’t found anybody who is really excited about his widely expected victory. In fact, I didn’t find anybody who is excited about any candidate.
After the first televised presidential debate on Sunday, the biggest headlines went to a young woman who worked as an assistant in charge of delivering the questions to the candidates, and showed up in a highly revealing dress that immediately created a stir on social media. The woman, a former Playboy playmate, eclipsed all candidates on the front pages in the days following the debate.
Peña Nieto, a 45-year-old former Mexico State governor, is better known for his good looks and his marriage to a soap opera star than for being a deep thinker. The conventional wisdom here is that he will win by default.
Mexicans want change, and Peña Nieto’s offer of “responsible change” has more appeal than leftist candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s calls for social justice, which some fear would lead to a Venezuelan-style radical populism.
According to polls, which came out shortly before the May 6 debate, Peña Nieto leads with 47 per cent of the vote, followed by centre-right government-backed candidate Josefina Vázquez Motta with 28 per cent, and López Obrador with 23 per cent.
The first post-debate polls are expected to be released Friday. But few expect them to show a Peña Nieto debacle because — while he didn’t shine during the debate — he didn’t make any serious major gaffe, either.
“Judging from what we saw in the 2000 and 2006 elections, the trends don’t change much in the last weeks before the vote,” Roy Campos, of the Consulta Mitofsky polling firm, told me after the debate. “Barring a major mistake by Peña Nieto, he is likely to win.”
Peña Nieto is the standard-bearer of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, the group that ruled Mexico with an iron grip for seven decades before it fell in disgrace amid accusations of widespread corruption. He doesn’t offer any radical changes to Mexico’s free market policies, and even advocates a larger private sector involvement in the country’s state-run Pemex oil monopoly, but he vows to lead a more efficient government and to reduce the drug-related violence that has crippled this country in recent years.
Most political insiders agree that Peña Nieto owes his lead in the polls to his party, which is by far Mexico’s best-organized and most powerful. The PRI, as it is known by its Spanish initials, rules 20 of Mexico’s 32 states.
In addition, Peña Nieto is benefiting from new election rules that were agreed by all parties in 2007, and that give huge advantages to whoever leads in the polls. Under the new rules, the campaign has been shortened from 160 to 90 days, and political parties are prohibited from airing TV ads that election authorities deem to be offensive to other candidates.
Also, many voters are tired after 15 years of divided governments where the president did not have a majority in Congress. PRI supporters vow that, if elected by a landslide, they will have enough of a majority in Congress to pass much needed tax, energy and education reforms.
My opinion: Despite the current conventional wisdom, Peña Nieto will not be able to maintain his lead in the polls, and the election will be much tighter than it now seems.
One of the reasons is the ‘Quadri factor,‘ as people are beginning to refer to the unexpectedly good showing of little-known candidate Gabriel Quadri de la Torre in last Sunday’s debate.
Quadri, who before the debate had only 1 per cent of support in the polls, is likely to chip off some support from the current second- and third-ranked candidates. This could help leftist candidate López Obrador rise to second place in the polls, and to repeat his 2006 performance, in which he came very close to winning the election.
A lot of things may still happen, including a last-minute Peña Nieto offer to Quadri to join his government if the PRI wins, as a way to win over his supporters. This campaign surely looks like Mexico’s most boring one in the past 20 years, but something tells me that it won’t be.
© The Miami Herald, 2012. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Media Services.