Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the consummate political insider Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the consummate political insider, is running as a ‘disruptive’ outsider in next year’s election. Kyle Grillot/Reuters

2018 presidential race is growing chaotic

Elements are in place for collapse of democracy

Mexico’s 2018 campaign season has not officially begun, but the race for the presidency is already a nail-biter, featuring a powerful ruling party, dozens of independent aspirants – including two women – and very strange bedfellows.


In my two decades analyzing Mexican elections as both an academic and a pollster, I have never seen such a crowded and unstable presidential field this early on.

For years, the country’s three mainstream parties have seen falling support. Now alternatives are popping up left and right, fracturing old alliances and creating new ones. Sometimes, more options are good for democracy. Other times, they portend chaos.

So is Mexico’s democracy thriving or struggling?

The first sign of trouble in this presidential campaign season came on September 5, when the leftist Democratic Revolutionary Party struck an unusual deal with a conservative rival, the National Action Party, and the smaller Citizen’s Movement. The three parties would join forces to run a single candidate under the banner of the so-called “Citizens’ Front for Mexico.”

While acknowledging that their coalition is ideologically incoherent, party leaders hope that the Citizens’ Front will seem like a palatable alternative to the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI – Mexico’s oldest political party.

The beleaguered PRI, which has a 20% approval rating and has not yet nominated its candidate for 2018, denounced the Citizens’ Front as illegal and sought an injunction against it.


Reactions across the political spectrum were equally strong. Andrés Manuel López Obrador, a populist former Mexico City mayor and ex-member of both the PRI and the rival Democratic Revolution Party, denounced the Front as a stunt.

López Obrador, who is now making his third presidential run – this time as leader of the left-leaning Morena Party, which he founded after splitting from the Democratic Revolutionary Party in 2014 – is also angling for the anti-PRI vote. With the election still nine months away, this consummate insider rebranded as a disruptive outsider is currently favored to win.

Resistance to the Citizens’ Front was fierce even within participating parties. In one spectacular retort, Margarita Zavala, a 33-year National Action Party veteran and wife of former president Felipe Calderón, quit the party to run for president as an independent.

Zavala’s defection was unexpected but understandable. People were already buzzing that she could become Mexico’s first viable female presidential candidate.

Without the National Action Party, or PAN, her odds of winning against López Obrador seem longer, but early polling is fairly promising. Zavala could come in second, stealing some of the Citizen’s Front base and bumping its candidate into third place but leaving López Obrador his eight-point lead.

Zavala is not the only independent throwing her hat in the ring for 2018. To date, dozens of people without national party affiliations have preregistered to run next July.

Politicians likely to make the cut include Jaime “El Bronco” Rodríguez, the cowboy boot-wearing governor of Nuevo León state, and Armando Ríos Piter, a centrist senator from Guerrero state who has drawn comparisons with French President Emmanuel Macron.

The crowded field of independents might also include another woman: María del Jesús Patricio, nominee of the National Indigenous Council.

These presidential aspirants must still overcome several hurdles to get on the ballot, among them gathering 850,000 signatures across 17 of Mexico’s 33 states. As of today none is quite on track to do so.

But even if the 2018 campaign turns out to be an eight-person horse race – three big-tent coalitions each running one consensus candidate, plus the top five independents – recent surveys still put López Obrador just barely out in front.

Shifting coalitions and independent candidacies are a new phenomenon in Mexico, a relatively young democracy that was ruled by one party – the PRI – for most of the 20th century.

But traditional political systems elsewhere in Latin America have long since splintered under similar pressures, sometimes with devastating results. In Venezuela and Peru in the 1990s, for example, plummeting public support for long-established parties ushered in the rise of two “disruptive” outsiders, Hugo Chávez and Alberto Fujimori.

Both won the presidency with a strong mandate to upend democratic institutions, and neither party system has fully recovered from the violent upheaval and power grabs that followed.

Such was the disruption that in Peru’s 2016 presidential race, 10 “parties” – some of them less than a year old – competed in the first round after a long stretch of political instability. Meanwhile, Venezuela has, in effect, just one party today: the authoritarian regime of Nicolás Maduro.

That’s because political fragmentation creates the potential for political gridlock and social instability. Convulsions in party systems like those brewing in Mexico blur the lines connecting voter choice to politician behavior.

This deteriorates already diffuse electoral accountability: When parties appear and disappear at random, and outsiders promise to “disrupt” the system, citizens are hard-pressed to correctly identify which party will act in their best interest.

In the worst case scenario, these shifts can lead to the collapse of democracy itself.

In my assessment, there’s a chance that the Mexican politics could meet the same fate.

For a country’s citizens to abandon their habitual parties en masse, studies show, three factors must be in place: a huge corruption scandal involving a mainstream party; an electorate alienated by politics as usual; and a social crisis that diminishes support for the ruling government.

Mexico has all of these puzzle pieces in place. Under President Enrique Peña Nieto, the PRI has been plagued by corruption and scandal. Now, the Odebrecht bribery scheme – which has caused chaos in Brazil, Ecuador and Peru – is hitting Mexico, too.

Additionally, polling shows that voter identification with all three major parties has eroded markedly over the past decade. And as for a profound social crisis, how about the 32,000 missing people who’ve “disappeared” during the country’s decade-long drug war?

In theory, then, Mexico could see its political system splinter in 2018. If López Obrador ekes out a plurality of the vote – say 30% – and numerous other parties and independents split the rest, the president would have a weak mandate and questionable legitimacy. This would mean six years of political stalemate at best and system failure at worst.

Before I get too dire, there’s one critical backstop to party collapse in Mexico: the PRI itself. In the turbulent 1990s Argentina’s political system survived significant changes because the well-branded Peronista Party gave out goods and service to ensure that voters didn’t forget it at the polls.

The ConversationThe PRI is one of Latin America’s most powerful party machines. In that sense, its extensive patronage networks could have the unexpected upshot of protecting Mexican democracy. The PRI is ailing, but it has a long history of political survival. It will probably adapt to these tough times, too.

Salvador Vázquez del Mercado is Conacyt Research Professor at the National Laboratory of Public Policy, Centro de Investigación y Docencia Económicas. This article was originally published on The Conversation.

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  • cooncats

    This is a great read, thank you for it.

  • Güerito

    Great. PRI can save “Mexican democracy” by continuing to engage in extreme levels of corruption, as long as they buy enough votes on election day to stay in power.

    It now looks like none of the independent candidates for President will come close to getting enough signatures to get on the ballot. Unless INE changes the rules, it’s going to be AMLO, PRI, and El Frente.

    AMLO will be on top in the polling that comes out in Spring. At that point, the important thing will be who is in second place, because that candidate will get the silent support from the third place candidate in order to stop AMLO.

    If PRI’s candidate is in second place, expect many Frente/PAN members to swing their support to the PRI candidate. And if Frente’s candidate is in second palce, expect many PRI members to swing their suppor to the Frente candidate.

    The whole election is about only one thing: the corrupt ruling class must stop AMLO at all costs or wind up in prison.

    BTW, Josefina Vasquez Mota was PAN’s candidate for President in 2012, so Margarita would not be the first major female candidate for Mexican president.

  • From South of the Border

    Guerito.. I understand the corruption of the PRI, but you get AMLO as president and the growing industrial base of Mexico will disappear like smoke on a windy day.. Do you really, believe that major international companies will stay in Mexico or come to Mexico, if AMLO Mexico’s Maduro is elected. I give Mexico 3 to 6 months, before most of the big companies, begin closing their plants and moving to other countries like Colombia, Chile etc. in Latin America. Closing factories costs very little and it can be deducted from their tax returns to increase profits. Like I have said here, before anyone, but AMLO. Maybe, if were lucky he’ll have a heart attack and go away quietly. EL FRENTE plus any PRI supporters needed to overcome AMLO will hopefully, be enough to finally, put a final nail on the political nightmares coffin. If anyone thinks that AMLO won’t be corrupt they are kidding themselves just look at Maduro he has stolen everything even the things that were nailed down. Give AMLO six years and Mexico will cease to exist as a viable country. Look at Venezuela it is on its last legs and might not survive.
    If you look next door to Venezuela at Colombia you see the end of the guerilla war and you see an ever more prosperous country that has a GDP expanding by 6 to 8% a year. The Colombian national Congress just ordered November 5, 2017 the minimum monthly wage to rise from $354 U.S. 2017 to $555 U.S. on January 1, 2018. Here is how fast the economy is growing in Colombia while next door Vanezuela’s economy is shrinking daily. If you want Mexico to become like Venezuela vote AMLO, if not vote for the person who can beat him! Socialism never works and AMLO will just kill the Mexican economy.

    • Güerito

      Nothing AMLO did while Mayor of Mexico City (2000-2005) warrants the media’s portrayal of him as a dangerous radical. He governed successfully and left Mexico City a much better place.

      As for the non-stop comparisons of him to Chávez or Maduro, Nobel Prize winning economist Paul Krugman recently was in Mexico City and he addressed that issue. Krugman said that AMLO reminds him more of former Brazil President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva than Chávez or Maduro. Lula da Silva, he stated, was also described by the Western press as a dangerous radical, yet he went on to become a good effective leader. Krugman also doesn’t believe multinationals will flee Mexico if AMLO is elected.

      I really wouldn’t mind if PAN’s Ricardo Anaya heads up El Frente and wins the presidency. I just really don’t want PRI to win. No one concerned about Mexico should want that.

      • Mexico city has a larger population than many countries and AMLO left the City in much better condition. He vastly improved services in the City and is almost universally recognized in the City for the great job he did. He is not anti-business. If manufacturers leave Mexico because he forces them to raise wages to the level they should be – let them leave. Many manufacturers have already gone to China and some came back.

      • cooncats

        Agree Guerito. I think what you read about AMLO is more about the biased press largely controlled here by the PRI criminals than anything. I think this country needs some serious shaking up and just putting in another PAN or PRI hack isn’t going to do it. As I said, my concern is whether or not he would actually be able to govern effectively with all the corrupt establishment, including the press, out to get him

        He’s worth a try in my opinion. If nothing is done, the corruption is going to sink this country.

      • From South of the Border

        Guerito, I wouldn’t mind El Frente winning either, but, if I have to choose, between PRI or AMLO, I’ll take PRI, because Paul Krugman isn’t the person you want to quote about AMLO Krugman himself is a socialist economist who was one of the people responsible for the doubling of U.S. debt under Obama he is the advisor to Obama who advised Obama to spend money with abandon, so now the U.S. in just 8 years went from a 10 trillion dollar debt to 20 trillion in debt. I’m sorry I do believe that AMLO is a threat to Mexico’s stability and I will be urging all my Mexican friends anyone, but AMLO. I hope EL FRENTE wins, but I’ll take PRI, if AMLO is the alternative. People need to understand as Mayor of Mexico City AMLO could only push policies so far as president he’d have the power to ruin Mexico. By the way Guerito Bosch, BMW, Ford, Gm and several other auto makers have already stated that they’ll leave Mexico, if AMLO is elected so much for Krugman’s statements on companies leaving, if AMLO is elected. Lula along with his successor are now in trouble in Brazil, because of corruption, so that comparison, isn’t very good either.

        • Commander Barkfeather

          If what you said were true, then most of Europe would have no foreign investment. Do not make the same mistake as the Congressional Republicans by assuming companies only care about tax rates and low wages. When an international manufacturer decides to locate to a particular country, that decision is based upon (1) is the workforce capable of building the product (is the educational system up-to-date)?, (2) can the country’s population afford to purchase the product (economic parity)?, (3) is there sufficient infrastructure to foster manufacture?, (4) is there political stability (companies hate to be surprised by regime change)? Tax rates and wages are almost an afterthought. Based on his performance in Mexico City, IMO, it would take much more than AMLO succeeding to the presidency to trigger mass business departure–listen to Paul Krugman.

          • From South of the Border

            First Europe is a much different animal than Mexico. Secondly these companies as I have already stated have come out and said they will leave, if AMLO is elected. Don’t take my word for it take the companies word for it. The head of Ford called AMLO a carbon copy of Maduro on a newscast in Detriot 2 days ago. You can ignore what people are saying or you can be practical and listen to the business leaders who are giving you a warning ahead of time. Krugman is a leftist and would support someone like AMLO. Personally, I’m about to retire, so, if you want to listen to people like Barkfeather and Krugman instead of listening to the actual businessmen who will make the decisions on whether to stay in Mexico or not be my guest. When the companies, begin to withdraw from Mexico in large numbers it will be to late. A railroad supplier called WABATEC here in San Luis Potosi just stopped all expansion plans here until after the election. They have already made it known they will leave, if AMLO is elected by the way GE who owns the railyard here in San Luis has started looking for a buyer, if AMLO wins. You just need to have your ears to the ground and know what is happening around you. I am a teacher of English and these companies are clients of my school and of other schools and this is how we know what is happening through our students who work at these companies and some of our students are actual top management here in Mexico and they are worried about their jobs, if AMLO wins. Commander Barkfeather keep on saying things that have no basis in fact, I’ll stick with what I know to be happening, because I hear these things directly from people who are involved in industry on the ground every day, but you want to plant your head in the sand and ignore the truth, because it doesn’t fit your leftist ideology. Remember from July, 2018 till December, 2018 the international companies have almost 6 months to begin leaving, before AMLO would take power, by the time he took office most of the companies would be finalizing plans to leave and AMLO and Mexico would be left with the large unemployment problem, with no recourse. Good Luck , if that happens!!

          • cooncats

            Well I wouldn’t listen to Paul Krugman about anything but I agree with your last sentence. I would expect the INITIAL reaction to be unfavorable and that will have an impact on exchange rates and interest rates in Mexico in the short term. It will be quickly realized the inertia of the political system here will prevent any rash changes.

        • cooncats

          Aw hell, South, look at all those liberal whiners who threatened to leave over Trump. Don’t take these kinds of rash statements too seriously. Also I can’t find any confirmation these companies publicly stated this on the record. Please provide references, thanks.

  • cooncats

    I didn’t take this piece as some sort of endorsement of the PRI but just an acknowledgement they provide a type of stability to the political system. I agree with Guerito most of the independents won’t survive the process of getting the required signatures. I think a concern the commercial sector would not like AMLO’s election much is warranted, the first thing I expect is the Peso would hit new lows very quickly.

    As for AMLO I think he’s going to have the Trump problem of not really having the legislature behind him so the changes will be minimal. If he uses control of the executive to go after corruption in the national government that would be a real plus. In actuality his tenure in Mexico City was hardly the stuff of radical socialism. Frankly, if he is elected I think the PRI and PAN will basically cut his balls off in the legislature.

    Mexico just isn’t going to make it if the corruption continues as it is now. Basically the country is being looted at all levels and the looters are mainly but not exclusively PRI. The PAN guys are pretty good at it too. The resources are being stolen to the point the country is starting to break down IMO. What is going on in Oaxaca is a chilling reminder that anarchy and revolution is never far away in this country.

    Whether one likes it or not, the Trump election is a reminder not to jump to conclusions too early in the electoral process. There’s a lot of time before the balloting begins and a lot can happen in the interim.

  • WestCoastHwy

    Let the assassination begin!