Sunday, April 29, 2012

The end of the first third

Mexico is at the end of the first third of the presidential campaign. It is time to measure what the candidates and their parties have done so far.

The worst performance of the electoral season comes from Josefina Vazquez Mota, the right-to-center candidate of the incumbent party. Her campaign has been marred since day one with the failed inauguration of her campaign at the Estadio Azul in Mexico City. Ms. Vázquez Mota campaign has been a string of errors without some counterweight suggesting that things will get better from here on. Something that would have allowed her to hint where she wanted to go was to distance herself from Fernando Larrazábal, the former mayor of Monterrey, Mexico’s third largest metropolitan area. Far from it, Ms. Vázquez Mota kept Mr. Larrázabal close during a campaign drive in Monterrey.

In doing so, she protected and endorsed Mr. Larrazábal. Keeping Larrázabal away was important for Ms. Vázquez Mota because she has been pushing to eliminate the full-blanket immunity protecting all Mexican top-level officials. Far from breaking with Larrázabal, the conservative candidate endorsed him as a candidate for the House. Moreover, Ms. Vázquez Mota has failed to understand how to operate and work around the social networks.

This was clear, for example in the episode at Tres Marias, which quickly spread through social networks, while her team tried to counter with an “old media” approach, including carefully edited videos aimed at discrediting what had been published in Twitter already. More recently, it was noteworthy how she added more than 87,000 new followers on Twitter, on a single night!  Most of these new followers, however, were newly created accounts, publishing nothing but information related to Vázquez Mota, nothing but BOTS.

The remainder of Ms. Vázquez Mota campaign has been a regrettable string of errors and mishaps coming out of her campaign manager, Roberto Gil Zuarth. The have been some snapshots of what her campaign could have been: the removal of the full-blanket immunity. These flashes, however, give no hope of a consistent performance in the immediate future.

 The PRI candidate, Enrique Peña Nieto, has hardly had a setback and, most of them do not go beyond some minor exchanges in either Twitter or Facebook. He has been severely criticized for his unwillingness to grant interviews with impartial journalists and he avoids going deep to explain some of his proposals. The only exception was the interview with Ciro Murayama for the National University TV channel.

Overall, Peña Nieto appears as an unsinkable battleship. The latest accusation seems to come out of a 1978 film by Arturo Ripstein, The Hell with No Limits, inspired by a José Donoso novel. The film broke several taboos at its time for Roberto Cobo’s performance as a transvestite. In real life, Enrique Peña is accused of having sustained a homosexual relationship with a teacher in his native State of Mexico and of ordering or consenting a severe attack on the professor, who now lives as a refugee in the U.S.

 It is not clear what will happen with this accusation, and as Guadalupe Lizárraga tells in her account of the story, several Mexican and US media dismissed the story. There is an ongoing judiciary process, but it is not clear what will come out it. What is clear is that, until now, is that the Peña Nieto battleship remains unsinkable. All the available surveys tell a story in which Peña keeps a comfortable lead and the changes happen among people who originally were on the Vázquez Mota camp now moving to Mr. López Obrador side.

Apparently, the Vázquez Mota campaign acknowledges this and that is way now she throws punches at both Peña Nieto and López Obrador. Peña is sticking to his “I will not divide Mexico” plea and there seems to be little or no reason for him to change. However, despite all this advantages the PRI campaign also has trouble figuring out how to behave in the social networks.

It is possible to see among Mr. Peña Nieto supporters a certain attempt at crushing their opponents. One possible reason for this is the PRI interest in winning both the presidential and the congress elections, by locking at least the 42.2% of the congressional votes. However, even if this is the case, it hard to understand why the PRI is acting the way they do.

The most pessimistic available estimates give the PRI-Greens coalition 266 out of 500 seats in the House. The most optimistic scenario gives them up to 303 seats in the House. In any of both scenarios, the PRI-Greens coalition will have enough votes to pass any bill, provided it does not involve amending the Constitution, since they will also control the Senate.

Finally, Mr. Andrés Manuel López Obrador had a very good performance during the first month of campaigning. The most important is to eradicate the perception that Mr. López Obrador is a radical. Even the polls of the Reforma group of newspapers, that frequently punish leftist candidates, acknowledge a remarkable improvement in Mr. López Obrador performance. In the Covarrubias y Asociados poll, a pollster close to the Mexican left, he appears in a tie with Ms. Vázquez Mota.

However, there are also some problems. As with the other candidates, Lopez Obrador has troubles figuring out how to manage his presence in the social networks. If one wants to find reasons not to believe the argument of the “Republic of Love” all one needs to do is to follow some Twitter and Facebook die-hard accounts to see how they attack and insult anyone who dares to criticize their presidential candidate, revealing intolerance.

It is hard to think that a presidential candidate will get a free pass on each of their proposals. The most loyal to Mr. López Obrador would do well to acknowledge what reveals clearly. This Web site is part of an academic project to understand the role of social networks. They use the Twitter feed to provide a living picture of the campaigns in that social network. The most interesting fact is in its page “If Mexico was Twitter”, as it tells us that as far as Twitter is concerned Mr. López Obrador is king.

The Website has devised an algorithm allowing to measure actual, real, activity on Twitter, i.e. the activity resulting from discounting BOTS accounts. In doing so, Mr. López Obrador has a 40.24% of the activity, Peña Nieto has 36.08%, and Vazquez Mota gets 23.68%

These numbers obviously do not correspond to those of most of the surveys available in Mexico that place, all of them, Peña as the leader of the pack, with Vázquez Mota and López Obrador struggling for the second position. The numbers coming out of about the activity on Twitter reveal how effective has been the López Obrador campaign to attract sympathizers, but also reveals that there is a huge gap between the activity at Twitter and what happens outside of Twitter.

Internet access in Mexico, including the so-called smart phones, is heavily biased due to income. Another aspect that talks about the intolerance of some of the most faithful to AMLO can be seen in the way they whip unfavorable polls, while they happily cheer at the surveys giving an overwhelming advantage to their candidate in the Mexico City mayoral race, Mr. Miguel Mancera.

One key flaw is that none of the candidates has presented a glimpse of how they expect to have the moneys to keep their promises for better and new services. None of the candidates has told how they will fund such promises. López Obrador keeps telling that he will reduce the salaries of top officials of the executive branch, but there is no way such cuts will be enough, especially since he is promising lower prices of electricity and gasoline. Lower wages of public officials is positive, necessary and possible, but these economies are not enough to fund his proposals. All candidates must explain how they will finance their proposals.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Obrador is coming back

It was easy to see it coming. Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the left-to center Mexican presidential candidate is already in a virtual tie with Josefina Vázquez Mota. Actually, on Thursday, April 19, Mr Obrador took the second position in ISA-Milenio daily presidential poll, Mexico’s most contested poll these days. The shift is the logical outcome of both some mistakes in Ms. Mota team, and some good moves in Mr Obrador campaign.

The key to this change has been mr Obrador’s decision to avoid all the mistakes he did back in 2006 and the perfect place to show his transformation was the meetings that Obrador and the other presidential candidates had with the Roman Catholic Bishops of Mexico.

The Mexican Bishops hold two annual meetings, one after Easter, and the other right before Advent. Mr Obrador attended the meeting, paying no attention to the most radical wing of his movement, and using it as a way to build bridges with actors that were pretty much against him back in 2006. This approach has been successful enough to get Mr Obrador a key endorsement from laureate poet Javier Sicilia. Mr Sicilia, leader of the Movement for Peace with Dignity and Justice, said that Mr Obrador “is the best” presidential candidate in the race, although Mr Sicilia insisted that he will void his vote.

Ms Mota’s position is by far the hardest at this point, mainly because of the legacy of the current government, and the growing rebellion in her party’s ranks. Ms Mota is not only competing against other registered candidates (Obrador, Nieto, and Quadri), but also against an independent presidential candidate, Manuel Clouthier, who was elected in 2009 as a member of the federal parliament. Mr Clouthier was not only a member of the same ruling party, he is also the son of one of the Mexican right-to-center most beloved leaders. On top of that, Ms Mota faces a series of mishaps in the nomination of parliamentary candidates, and a break-up of the relations between her party and social leaders in the Benito Juárez borough of Mexico City that ended up with a bloody beating.

Ms Mota adhered firmly to the official position of the Roman Catholic Church on abortion and same-sex marriages. In doing so, she dismissed the poor performance of Mexican economy and the growing concentration of income. Her firm acceptance of the Church’s official position on abortion and same-sex marriages probably helped her score some points with some bishops, but is very difficult to assume the same among the public.

As usual, Mr. Enrique Peña Nieto, candidate of the Revolutionary Institutional Party, the party that ruled Mexico for seven decades, avoided any clear-cut definition. He said that he is against abortion, but he also refused pursuing policies leading to penalizing women who choose to have an abortion.

It is important to keep in mind that 2009 and 2010 were the years when a wave of reforms to state legislation in 18 (out of 32) states set different types of punishments on women and doctors performing abortions. These changes came as a response to reforms in Mexico City in 2007-8.

Mr Nieto unwillingness to make clear-cut definitions on key issues will be the overall approach of his campaign from here until July 1st. It will be up to his party to challenge his rivals’ assertions. Most notably, his party will take care of the accusations from the ruling National Action Party claiming Mr Nieto is a liar.

Such accusations already lead to an unusual debate among leaders of both the ruling National Action Party and Mr. Nieto’s party in the streets of Tlalnepantla, one of Mexico’s City most crowded suburbs. The debate was brief, heated and full of outbursts, and insults, so the moderator called it off.

The ruling party must be careful because, for better or for worse, one can verify, and accept or reject any of  the more than 600 commitments publicly signed by Nieto as the governor of the State of Mexico, the most populated state in the Mexican union.

On the other hand, one cannot do the same with most of the current national government campaign promises. Felipe Calderón, as an example, said back in 2006 that he was willing to become the “president of employment”. One cannot verify such statement. Moreover, the National University released this week a detailed analysis of Mexican labor market. The study states that 55 percent of the newjobs in the last five years were informal jobs. The same study underscores that unemployment in Mexico grew by 33 percent over the same period.

Even when one considers the key policy of the current administration, Mr Calderón’s war on drugs, the results are poor. This week the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees set the number of persons forced out of their homes in no less than160, 000. One should add to this figure any number between 30, 000 and 60, 000people dead because of violence, on top of unreported figures of wounded, widows, widowers, and orphans.

Hence, one should ask what is going to come out of the “mud wars”. Although such “wars” are rather common in established democracies, it is important to take into consideration that there is a huge deficit of trust in the Mexican electoral authorities. Six years ago, it was very hard for Mr. Calderón to be sworn as president in the House of Representatives, and if one is to believe in Mr. Obrador, there was a huge risk of a break-up of social order in the country.

As usual, the wildest performance of the week came from Gabriel Quadri, the candidate of the Nueva Alianza (New Alliance) Party, who refused any kind of evaluation ofthe teachers. Nueva Alianza is a party funded by the coffers of the all-mighty Teacher's Union in Mexico, the SNTE.

One thing to keep in mind as Mexico goes deep in the campaign season is that in France there is a good chance that the challenger, Mr. François Hollande will beat the incumbent, Nicolas Sarkozy. Mr. Hollande’s candidacy is important because he has proposed a bold 75% tax rate on any person with a yearly income of over one-million euros.

This is important because one of Mexico’s key challenges is to develop an overhaul of the tax code. If Mr. Hollande wins in France there is a good chance that all over Europe and, eventually in Latin America, there will be pressure to introduce major changes in the tax code. Without such changes, it will be very difficult for the candidates in the Mexican race to achieve any of their major goals.