Opinion
Eliseo Fernández's campaign for governor billboard. The buzzword in all Campeche's political campaigns this year is "cambio" (change). Eliseo Fernández's campaign for governor billboard. The buzzword in all Campeche's political campaigns this year is "cambio" (change).

Campeche’s elections could be a bellwether for the nation’s political future

State's elections could be a referendum on national voter sentiment

“Total Change,”  reads one campaign billboard.

A nearby competitor riffs along: “More Change.”

Then, across the road, a differently colored poster calls for “True Change.”

Finally, just when you think you couldn’t be surprised by infinitesimal jazz-like variations on declarations of change, here comes yet another party, this time advertising “Better Change.”

Welcome to Campeche’s 2021 electoral cycle, in which, to steal Edward Murrow’s line about the Vietnam War: “anyone who isn’t confused really doesn’t understand the situation.”

The PRI, PAN, and PRD coalition candidate Christian Castro Bello is aiming to maintain PRI power in Campeche.
The PRI, PAN, and PRD coalition candidate Christian Castro Bello is aiming to maintain PRI power in Campeche.

On sale in Campeche this 2021 electoral season is wall-to-wall change, in which the main prize is the governorship of the state, held by the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) since time immemorial.

PRI hegemony notwithstanding, new political waves are sweeping through this quiet political backwater, waves which also represent broader national tendencies and might give some clues into Mexico’s political future.

Contextually, it is important to note that when President López Obrador, or AMLO, was elected three years ago, Campeche was not one of the state seats in contention and, as such, did not fall to the vast Morena wave which swept all before it in 2018.

As such, the 2021 electoral cycle will serve a twofold purpose: first, as a watermark for gauging whether the Morena project has retained its overwhelming grassroots support and can therefore continue its strong trajectory. Second, it’s a test case for understanding whether the traditional parties of the PRI, the National Action Party (PAN) and the Democratic Revolution Party (PRD) have experienced a recent temporary setback or whether they are in fact faced with a crisis that imperils their very existence.

In fact, the traditional parties from across the political spectrum have, in an unprecedented move, joined together in an alliance for the current electoral cycle and are the only coalition not running on a platform of change.

Instead, their campaign is fueled by oblique talk of “defending Campeche,” intimating that Morena and its gubernatorial candidate, Layda Sansores, are outsiders intent on ransacking the state for their own political ends. Indeed, though Sansores is demonstrably from Campeche, she has had an opportunistic political career in which 30 years with the PRI later led to her flitting between almost all other parties at different junctures.

Sansores’ campaign notwithstanding, the unspoken message behind the coalition’s nebulous slogan of defense is that Campeche is and always has been a PRI state. Morena’s increasing influence brings with it the kind of seismic change that threatens all traditional power structures in the state, and for the PRI and its traditional supporters, there is much at stake to be lost.

These strange anti-Morena political bedfellows are in fact not unique to Campeche; they are fielding candidates across the country.

In Campeche, Christian Castro Bello is the figurehead for the coalition, although as the nephew of previous governor Rafael Alejandro Moreno Cárdenas, who is now president of the PRI, Bello faces unsurprising charges of nepotism.

Of course, the raison d’être of the PRI and its almost entire political platform tends to be regarded by independent political commentators as that of maintaining its established hegemony — nothing further. Accordingly, many see the alliance as a desperate political move by all three parties in an attempt to reestablish political purchase, traditional enemies banding together in the face of a common nemesis: the new Morena kid on the block.

Viewed from a national perspective, it thus comes as little surprise that the battleground seems set between AMLO’s Morena and the traditional parties.

Yet, there is a third contender, who — whatever your opinion of him — has altered the language of the political rulebook. Enter, stage left, the curious figure of Eliseo Fernández Montufar.

Morena candidate Layda Sansores hopes to continue the national Morena electoral wave.
Morena candidate Layda Sansores hopes to continue the national Morena electoral wave.

Of the three contenders, Fernández is perhaps the most renegade. He has established his own political playbook, breaking with all received opinions on how to run campaigns in Mexico.

Take a stroll and you may see him pasted on a billboard holding an eagle, or you may have seen him boxing his way through a video, to name two of his more heavy-handed campaign choices. Moreover, where Morena and the coalition have poured money into traditional campaign methods, Fernández has focused primarily on boosting his image through social media as an appeal to modernization. He’s also used Everyman strategies, going from community to community, personally filling and fixing roads by hand — something old school political apparatchiks would consider well beneath them.

But therein is the point.

A quick scroll down Fernández’s Twitter page will reveal a plethora of photographs of an affable man of the people, grinning alongside the residents of locales all over Campeche. The man definitively and defiantly does not lack for energy or footfall.

But, above all, what makes Eliseo — and he is largely known by his first name — unique is how he has eschewed party political structures and, with support and funding from the Movimiento Cuidando, is undertaking his campaign for governor largely by himself.

A defector from the political party structure would rarely be a threat to the hegemony of the traditional parties at the best of times, but Fernández’s term as the mayor of the city of Campeche (albeit on a PAN platform) means that he already has at least a social media-proven track record of hard work and delivery for the people.

Current polls suggest that Morena and Eliseo Fernández are the real heavyweight contenders facing off for the governorship. This begs the question of whether the midterm elections in states across Mexico will see the beginning of a broad political sweep for Morena or the seeds of pushback against government populism.

Whatever the way of it, the upcoming June elections in this quiet backwater of Mexico’s tropical south are likely to be a much bigger indicator of the country’s political future.

Shannon Collins is an environment correspondent at Ninth Wave Global, an environmental organization and think tank. She writes from Campeche.

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