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Armando Razo
Assistant Professor, Department of Political Science
(812) 855-4206

Last modified: Friday, June 30, 2006

Expert available to comment on Mexico's presidential election

Mexico to elect a new president July 2

June 30, 2006

EDITOR'S NOTE: Mexico will go to the polls Sunday (July 2) to vote for its next president who will serve a six-year term running from 2006-2012. Armando Razo, assistant professor in the IU Bloomington Department of Political Science and the Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis, will be available to comment on the election's impact on Mexico on Monday, July 3.

Complete comments from Armando Razo, assistant professor, IU Bloomington Department of Political Science on the July 2 Mexican elections:

Mexican voters will go to the polls this Sunday (July 2) to elect a new president from a pool of five candidates. In a country once dominated by a one-party government that determined electoral outcomes well in advance, no one knows who will win the presidency for the upcoming six-year term, which runs from 2006-2012.

This time it is up to the electorate of more than 70 million voters to decide the outcome, but poll results do not indicate a clear winner. Public support is roughly evenly divided among the top three candidates, with a slight advantage for the leftist candidate, Andres M. López Obrador, followed closely by Felipe Calderón of the incumbent, conservative National Action Party (PAN), and in a not-too-distant third place, Roberto Madrazo, representing the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) that was once in power from 1929 to 2000.

While the close presidential race has generated much attention, what is at stake is not the identity of the new president, but Mexico's long-term development. Anyone who sees the election of a particular candidate as a cure for Mexico's problems will be quickly disappointed for two major reasons.

First, Sunday's elections are general ones, including not just the presidency, but the renewal of the bicameral congress, along with some gubernatorial races, including the election of a new mayor for Mexico City. It is the combined outcome of the general elections that will affect policymaking and governance in the short-run, not just the campaign promises of any given candidate.

More importantly, the second reason is that Mexico's problems require long-term strategies that extend well beyond the next six years. There have been great expectations to induce major changes following the historic defeat of the PRI government in 2000, but it is unrealistic to undo a political system laid out over 70 years in just a matter of years.

In the short-run, however, the outcome of the election will bring about at least two major challenges.

First, there is an immediate need for defeated candidates to readily accept the outcome and call upon their supporters to maintain the peace. This is a matter of great concern in the current context of a very negative campaign among the major candidates, a divided electorate that is very frustrated with the lack of economic progress, and the episodes of lawlessness and violence that have occurred in recent months.

Second, it is imperative that the new president be able to navigate and negotiate policies in what is likely to be a highly contested political environment. In the past, presidents dominated the system and were able to impose their desired policies, but this is no longer the case. As current President Vicent Fox Quesada quickly learned after his historic victory in 2000, exorbitant campaign promises in a more democratic setting will remain just that--promises.

In contrast to the presidential race, poll results for congressional elections run the other way, indicating that the PRI party of the third-place candidate will dominate both houses of Congress. The polls thus point to a likely situation of divided government in which the new president will have a difficult time passing major policy proposals without the assistance of opposition parties.

This situation especially applies to the leftist candidate, López Obrador, who has promised radical changes in economic policy, but would have to moderate his views once in power to get any results. Indeed, for Mexico to make any progress in the next six years, the winning candidate must quickly switch from heated and antagonistic campaign rhetoric to a more conciliatory tone, in order to reach out not just to opposition parties, but also to the majority of the population that supported other candidates.

In the long-run, Sunday's elections represent a positive step in a trajectory of increased political competition within the last couple of decades. As parties and candidates have recognized the need to become more responsive to voters, there is hope that the needs of citizens will have a greater voice in the future.

Already, the incumbent PAN party knows that its inability to deliver tangible economic benefits after 2000 have placed it in a situation in which it may be voted out of office. This lesson would apply just as well to any winning candidate. For instance, if López Obrador wins this year, a populist ideology alone will not keep his party in power in subsequent elections if his administration does not improve the situation of most Mexicans.

But Mexican presidents are not allowed to be re-elected, so the electoral incentives of American presidents do not apply here. For executive governments to be more accountable, political parties -- not individuals -- must want to remain in power, and this requires a process of greater cohesion and political organization than is currently in place.

Perhaps the greatest challenge for Mexico is that progress, if it comes, will be incremental. But the demands are urgent, thus requiring a delicate balance between short- and long-term needs. For political competition to make a real difference, it must not only lead to the replacement of ineffective governments, but also towards the strengthening of political institutions and governance more generally.

The current administration has increased transparency and accountability, but much more needs to be done. Mexico's economic needs require that it have a more effective political system, one in which politicians have incentives to fight endemic corruption, increase government efficiency and accountability, promote both equity and productivity, and make long-term investments in human capital.

Not all of these actions may be rewarded in the short run, however, so it is critical that both the electorate and political parties have a long-term perspective. What is at stake is Mexico's future, but it will take several rounds of presidential elections to finally perceive major changes.

Armando Razo is an assistant professor in the IU Bloomington Department of Political Science and is affiliated with the Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis. His research interests are in the field of comparative politics, with a concentration on the political economy of development. His research and teaching center around two themes: how political institutions in developing countries affect economic performance; and the study of political institutions and political organization in dictatorships. He teaches courses in comparative politics, Latin American politics, positive political economy, and statistical methods. He is currently working on a book manuscript about social networks and political institutions in dictatorships. He is co-author with Stephen Haber and Noel Maurer of The Politics of Property Rights (2003), published by Cambridge University Press. He has published articles in World Politics, the Journal of Economic History, and the Journal of Latin American Studies.