Mexican Political Transition Underway

Mexican Political Transition Underway

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As recent comments by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano reaffirm, the Obama administration is wagering that Mexican President Felipe Calderon can largely dismantle powerful organized crime groups in the 22 months the conservative leader has left in office. But in Mexico, the calendar operates in different ways than up north, and the post-Calderon years are already in swing.

The opening battle of the 2012 Mexican political transition took place Jan. 30 in the southern state of Guerrero, one of Mexico's most impoverished and conflictive entities. Guerrero's largest city, Acapulco, and several other regions of the state have been immersed in violence among and between competing organized crime groups.

In an election punctuated by scattered rounds of bloodshed and ample irregularities, longtime Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) politician Angel Heladio Aguirre scored a landslide victory over his cousin Manuel Anorve, a two-time mayor of Acapulco.

Aguirre served as interim governor of Guerrero from 1996 to 1999, after PRI Governor Ruben Figueroa Alcocer was forced to resign because of the international scandal arising from the 1995 state police massacre of 17 unarmed farmers at Aguas Blancas.

Aguirre's gubernatorial campaign and subsequent triumph this year raised many eyebrows. Denied the PRI nomination for governor last year, Aguirre quickly re-emerged as the candidate of a center-left coalition encompassing the PRD, PT and Convergencia parties. Virtually at the last minute, the candidate of President Calderon's PAN party, which has scant support in Guerrero, dropped out of the race and endorsed the left-backed Aguirre.

Spiced with generous sprinklings of scandal and political surrealism, the Guerrero election was also characterized by many analysts as the first big skirmish of the year in an intensifying scramble for power as the 2012 presidential and congressional elections loom.

"I have no doubt that the Guerrero election is the beginning of the July 2012 election race...," said Jesus Zambrano, member of the national PRD leadership. "That's why there was so much tension and attention from the principal political parties."

Wins in this year's political races will give the victorious forces control of state government apparatuses and an opportunity to implement programs that could prove popular among voters next year. In his campaign, Aguirre pledged to enact PRD programs pioneered in Mexico City like financial help for single mothers and students.

The struggle for state governorships continues on Superbowl Sunday, Feb. 6, in Baja California Sur, home of the Cabo San Lucas mega-resort. Other 2011 state elections are scheduled for Coahuila, Hidalgo, Nayarit and Michoacan, all states afflicted by high levels of so-called narco-violence.

But it will be in July when the year's raffle prize goes to the winner of the governorship of highly-populated Mexico state just outside the Mexican capital.

Although it remains to be seen if the electoral left's momentum can be maintained after Guerrero, last weekend's election strengthened the hand of PRD Mexico City Mayor Marcelo Ebrard, who campaigned actively for Aguirre. Ebrard is now backing the PRD's Alejandro Encinas as a possible Guerrero-style coalition candidate in the battle for the crucial Mexico state governorship.

Frequently interviewed on national news and poltical talk shows, Ebrard is known to be oggling the presidency. On the other hand, the upcoming July election is also a critical moment for the presidential aspirations of Enrique Pena Nieto, the outgoing PRI governor of Mexico state who has been widely viewed as the former ruling party's 2012 candiate and the front-runner for president. The Guerrero electoral outcome could put a chill on Pena Nieto's rise to the top.

According to Zambrano, the January 30 ballot results punctured the PRI's "myth of invincibility."

In any event, the political chessboard at the moment doesn't augur well for President Calderon's PAN. After nearly a dozen years of the PAN in the Mexican White House, many Mexicans are tired stagnant growth, high prices, low wages and insecurity.

The political mix is a volatile one, with politicians jumping from party-to-party and forging alliances that once seemed unthinkable. In today's political game, ideological lines are blurrred and long-term national goals fuzzy.

Angel Aguirre, for example, was a PRI governor of Guerrero during a time when guerrilla uprisings, repression against the PRD and social movements and human rights violations visited the state.

Both Aguirre and his ally Marcelo Ebrard have been careful to distance the governor-elect from the violence of 15 years ago or so.

Wild cards are on the table. After largely dropping out of politics several years ago, PRD founder and three-time presidential candidate Cuauhtemoc Cardenas has reappeared on the public scene. The son of revered Mexican President Lazaro Cardenas, Cuauhtemoc has a new book out and is speaking out on national television about such matters as reinventing the faction-ridden PRD and redefining relations with Washington. Cardenas' own son, former Michoacan Governor Lazaro Cardenas Batel, could become the PRD's next national leader.

While some Mexicans dismiss 2006 PRD candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador as a has-been, the ex-mayor of Mexico City has spent the last four years criss-crossing almost every nook and cranny of the country. He commands a national organization of an estimated two million persons that functions outside the formal structure of the PRD or any other party.

Lopez Obrador is back on the airwaves with television spots that feature a women regretting not voting for the opposition leader in 2006. When pressed by a male companion, she points to news items about violence. Accompanied by a PT party logo, Lopez Obrador then assures viewers his political project "continues alive."

Touring strategic Mexico state recently, Lopez Obrado criticized Calderon's anti-crime campaign, accusing the Mexican leader of stirring up a hornet's nest and "acting in a stupid way."

As the days wear on, a big question is whether Ebrard or Lopez Obrador will emerge as the 2012 standard-bearer of the factious electoral left.

The shifting political landscape has huge implications for Washigton's Mexico policy, which under both the Bush and Obama administrations has focused on questions of border security and the so-called narco war, arguably to the detriment of numerous other issues.

With Calderon in power, Washington was able to operate a huge spy nest in Mexico City, train thousands of Mexican marines, interrogate undocumented migrants passing through Mexico to the U.S., and share intelligence that dispatched several wanted crime family capos to the grave.

The Calderon adminstration's war on organized crime is sure to be one of the paramount issues in next year's elections.

As violence continues to stain many parts of the country, criticism of the PAN-led government and its relationship with Washington is mounting on both sides of the border. Representing the PT and PRI parties, lawmakers Porfirio Munoz Ledo, Pedro Vazquez and Jorge Rojo Garcia criticized this week recent Napolitano comments on Mexico and warned of a "silent invasion" of their nation by the U.S.

It is uncertain whether the next Mexican presidential administration will be interested in pursuing the parameters of the U.S.-Mexico relationship as shaped by the Merida Initiative. In short, the clock is ticking for U.S. policy.

Meanwhile, all eyes will soon be on the election in Mexico state. Alarmed by growing signs of dirty campaigning and gathering electoral irregularities, a coalition of almost 200 citizen groups is organizing to monitor the race.

Bernando Barranco, former Mexico state election official, is among many activists supporting the initiative. Warning of an "electoral Balkanization," Barranco argued that a grassroots election monitoring movement on the scale of efforts launched by Alianza Civica and other activists back in the 1980s and 1990s was urgently needed.

"This political class lacks a long-term project," Barranco contended.
"There are only projects of interest groups and very corrupt factions. That's why it's more than indispensable not only for this electoral process, but also for later on. This political class can't be left on its own."

Additional sources: Televisa, February 1, 2011. El Sur, January 30, 31, 2011; February 1, 2011. Articles by Jesus Rodriguez Montes, Miguel Angel Granados Chapa, Daniel Velazquez Olea, Jaime Castrejon Diaz, Hugo Pacheco Leon, and Agencia Reforma. Proceso, January 30, 2011. Articles by Rosalia Vergara, Alvaro Delgado and Jorge Carrasco Araizaga. La Jornada, January 27, 2011. Article by Ciro Perez Silva and Misael Habana de los Santos.