For all of Trump’s posturing and threats against Mexico, he might have saved the ruling party, PRI, from certain defeat in the next elections. Enrique Peña Nieto, the current president from PRI, is spectacularly unpopular. Currently his approval ratings stand at 22 percent, and Mexicans routinely compare his intellect to George W Bush’s. In a telling episode, Trump made headlines during his election campaign in 2012 for struggling to name a favorite book other than the Bible.
Unfortunately, events in Mexico during his term have not been so humous. For three years now the government has been haunted by the disappearance of 43 student-activists that attended a teacher’s college in the state of Guerrero. It is widely believed that local police cooperated with the area drug cartel to stage and cover up the murder of the students. The federal government’s slowness and ineffectiveness in investigating the issue raised continuing concerns about corruption and unaccountability. Even when government bodies have dealt with the cartels harshly, there has been political fall out. For example, last year the chief of the federal police was fired for the extrajudicial killing of 22 suspected drug dealers. This scandal revealed how deeply intertwined the methods of the cartels and the government had become after years of struggle.
Most recently, massive protests, sometimes devolving into violence, have taken place all over Mexico in the wake of the Enrique Peña Nieto administration’s 20 percent increase in gas prices–the gasolinazo. The main Mexican oil company, PEMEX, is under government control and so the government has far more ability to determine its gas prices that the United States does. This impacts the working class the most because a far greater percentage of their income is devoted to transportation than the middle class or the rich, making them especially sensitive to price increases. Nevertheless, the protests have to be seen as an expression continuing outrage against the previous issues covered in addition to the current price increase of gas. What we are currently continue to witness as protests of Enrique Peña Nieto take place in greater anti-Trump protests, is a mass rejection of the current administration.
Given this information, one would think that even though Peña Nieto is not running again, the ruling party would certainly face defeat in the 2018 Mexican elections. However, the rise of Trump has provided PRI with a convenient distraction from domestic issues. By becoming the party of resistance to the wall and Trump’s bullying over the next year, PRI could restore its legitimacy in time for the election.
PRI also has the advantage of having been the only party in power for 70 years until the victory of Vicente Fox of PAN, a center-right party, in the 2000 elections. Despite the end of its one party state, PRI still has the vast patronage network it built over the decades and can draw upon it when necessary.
The best worst-case scenario for PRI would be another victory for PAN, which has been smoothly integrated into structures of power after its initial insurgent victory. PRI and PAN are both so vested in maintaining the current order of Mexican Politics that critics have dubbed them PRIAN. On the most fundamental issues of Mexican policy, namely continuing liberalization and integration with the US economy, both parties have stuck to the neoliberal consensus behind the creation of NAFTA , and so little would change in US-Mexico relations if a power transfer occurred.
And yet, there is also the increasingly likely chance that a Left populist breakthrough will take place in Mexico if Andrés Manuel López Obrador, a former head of the Mexico City federal district, and current leader of the left-wing political party MORENA, were to win the 2018 elections. He came close to the presidency two times in the past, but twice lost to the establishment candidates. Because of his populist leanings and less compromising stances regarding the environment and workers rights, he might be a better candidate for Mexican people to feel dignified and in control of their own destinies in the face of Trump. Furthermore, he supports reversing the militarization of the Mexican police that has led to unnecessary deaths and escalation in the drug war. However, his penchant for organizing spontaneous street demonstrations could easily transform turn from a way of mobilizing people for justice into a vehicle to support unaccountable demagoguery.
Ironically, there would be no better Mexican partner for Donald Trump than Obrador. Donald Trump has long said that he either wanted to eliminate or renegotiate NAFTA, and Obrador himself has made anti-NAFTA statements. To appeal to Mexicans, in southern corn regions like Oaxaca and Chiapas where corn and other staples are grown on small family farms, he has said he would not honor provision in NAFTA on dropping tariffs on US corn and beans. When this provision came into effect in 1994, the Mexican market was flooded by US agricultural products and many small scale farming operations and local economies were destroyed. There is a reason why almost every Mexican immigrant you come across in Poughkeepsie is from Oaxaca. Although NAFTA did help the Mexican economy grow and develop into an industrial powerhouse, it is obvious that certain aspects of it need to change.
However, with Trump as a partner, Obrador will not be able to create the more equitable trade arrangements he strives for. Following Trump’s “America First” creed, a renegotiating NAFTA would be even more skewed in the interests of the United States and Mexico would be worse off than under the current deal. The Mexican economy is too small in relation to the United States’ to exercise the leverage Obrador would desire.
Before Trump’s election I would have had greater expectations for an Obrador victory, but now I think that the current establishment parties will be able to channel anti-Trump outrage into staying power. In the climate of uncertainty ushered in by Trumps victory, many people in Mexico will be inclined to choose the safe and familiar political options. But then again, in this new political era anything can happen.