Voters in Mexico and Peru exercised their ballot in an election where the core issues have been the response to the pandemic, the state of healthcare and the economic inequality along with the rise in violence. In Peru, voters elected their next president while Mexico’s mid-term elections have been called the test of confidence for President Andres Manuel Lòpez Obrador and his future reform policy. The two elections are important precursors to the elections that will take place in Chile later in the year and Brazil and Colombia in 2022.
The Violence Prone Road of Mexican Elections
On June 6, Mexicans voted in one of the largest elections held in the country in terms of the number of posts to be filled. Some 94 million Mexicans cast ballots for 21,368 public officials- the 500 Chamber of Deputies of the Mexican Congress, 15 of the country’s 32 governorships along with a thousand plus mayoral and local legislative posts. Along with the biggest, the elections have also turned out to be one of the most violent in Mexico.
In this election cycle, the country’s three traditional political parties, the centre-right Revolutionary Institutional Party, right-wing National Action Party and leftist Party of the Democratic Revolution, put aside their differences and ideological conflicts to form a coalition to oppose the National Regeneration Movement (MORENA), the part of President Lòpez Obrador. Their efforts bore fruit as preliminary results indicate that the ruling coalition will lose seats likely to dent its super majority in Congress. MORENA’s loss of support in Mexico City is an indication of the underlining the ebbing of support for President López Obrador’s project among the country’s educated middle class. Nonetheless, the ruling coalition is likely to gain sets in local and regional offices showing that it is deepening its reach within the country.
These elections were important as they decide whether President Lòpez Obrador, his party, and its satellite parties will retain an absolute majority in the Chamber, in addition to their relative majority in the Senate. The majority in the Congress is critical to passing constitutional reforms key to President Lòpez Obrador’s “Fourth Transformation” and local elections wins are needed to pass changes to the Mexican constitution and roll back laws that he feels have spurred inequality and corruption. Although MORENA, together with allies, will still be the dominant force in the 500-seat legislature, the coalition is expected to fall well short of the two-thirds majority required to push through the most sweeping aspects of the presidential agenda.
Dominating the legislature has facilitated President Lòpez Obrador to push forward with his policy plans to redistribute wealth to the poor, encourage economic nationalism, and increasingly centralise power in dealing with the health crisis despite criticism and opposition from other members of the Congress. President Lòpez Obrador has been critical of the media in highlighting the deficiencies of the government and also the National Electoral Institute which censured himfor speaking on election-related matters in his press conferences (elected officials are barred by the constitution and electoral laws, to promote themselves or their parties using state machinery). Since 2018, MORENA has introduced 29 constitutional amendments and approved 289 legislative changes. Many have concentrated more power in the presidency and subjected other parts of Mexico’s federal bureaucracy to severe austerity. The worry that has been expressed is that a weak and divided political opposition has been unable to mount an effective challenge to President Lòpez Obrador and MORENA. Critics claim the government is taking steps to undermine the independent judiciary and implementing reforms that invade privacy while taking steps to abolish government watchdogs such as the National Institute for Access to Information, which monitors federal spending and investigates abuses against personal privacy. Meanwhile, the Mexican economy is facing critical challenges, criminal violence continues, and the government’s response to the COVID-19 outbreak has been meek. Poverty increased from 36% of the population to 45% in 2020, according to the national social development agency Coneval, a rise fuelled by the pandemic. Violence, too, continues unabated. Hundreds of reporters, human rights defenders, environmental activists and priests have been killed in recent years. In the current election cycle, close to eighty nine candidates and politicians have been killed while many have been wounded in attacks or threatened.
The violence against candidates is a worrying factor for Mexican democracy and a testament to the growing links between local governments and organised crime. Many experts state that the struggle for municipal power is centred on the needs of the criminal gangs to gain control over local government funds, infrastructure projects, the local economy, influence within the police force and most importantly territories to project power as well as maintain drug-trafficking routes. The fight for influence is complicated with gangs supporting their own candidates and threatening those backed by rival gangs. Another worrying development is that in previous election cycles, candidates who ignored threats and carried on campaigning were killed. This has led to a fear psychosis. With threats mounting, candidates withdrew from the race looking at past examples. President Lòpez Obrador has tried to reduce the homicide rate through his policies — which include a new national guard, and social programs to lure young people from crime, but they have not substantially reduced the hold of the gangs on the youth. The attacks on candidates reflect a broader effort by crime groups to exert control in Mexico.
The Presidential Elections of Peru
Peru faced a political crisis in November 2020 after the Peruvian Congress started impeachment proceedings against former President Martín Vizcarra on allegations of corruption, bribery and mishandling of the pandemic. The impeachment of President Vizcarra led to protests by the people against the ‘coup’ by Congress and saw three presidents come and leave in a matter of few days. Nearly all of Peru's presidents in the last three decades have either been impeached or involved in corruption scandals leading to corruption featuring prominently in the election campaigns of all candidates. With close to 18 candidates in the April elections, the June run off was between leftist candidate Pedro Castillo (Free Party), who was a schoolteacher who entered politics by leading a national teachers' strike in 2017, and Keiko Fujimori the candidate of the right-wing Popular Force party. The Congresswoman was runner up in the 2011 and 2016 presidential run-off elections and is the daughter of former President Alberto Fujimori who is in prison on corruption and human rights abuse charges. With all of the votes tallied, the National Office of Election Processes (OPNE) declared that Pedro Castillo secured 50.125% of the votes and Keiko Fujimori secured 49.875%. Nonetheless, the independent body in charge of declaring a winner is the National Elections Jury (JNE) not the OPNE. The JNE has stated that it would not be able to declare the winner unless it has reviewed all voting records that have been contested and ruled on requests to have votes annulled. Experts say it could be days before the official result of the election is announced as both candidates have spoken about election frauds and no candidate is expected to concede defeat before the final count is declared. Fujimore’s Party has made the majority of appeals but has provided little evidence of systematic voting fraud which would be required to annul votes. Castillo and his party have denied ‘stealing votes’ and have pointed to the fact that the candidate has support in rural areas, which ensures that the results declared by the OPNE is possible. The Organisation of the Americas which had sent observers has stated that it has found no evidence of serious irregularities.
The two candidates’ support bases indicate a divided electorate. Castillo has the support of the rural areas as he speaks of limiting foreign companies’ profits and working towards socialism. He has stated that if elected, he will seek to renegotiate contracts with lucrative mining and energy companies and raise taxes on them, which has alarmed the business sector. Fujimori has the support of the middle- and upper-class urban population. She promises to resurrect pro-market policies and heavy-handed responses to insecurity. The new president would have to work with both factions at a time when Latin America is witnessing people’s protests against the establishment.
Regardless, the winner will face enormous challenges as Peru struggles with a flailing economy and COVID-19. Decades of underinvestment in the health system and the unsustainability of pandemic lockdowns in a country where most people are employed in the informal economy have led to a catastrophic surge in COVID-19 infections. In 2020, Peru registered among the world’s highest known COVID-19 death rates per capita and reported the region’s largest contraction in the gross domestic product (GDP) (as on date Peru has 20,81,557 confirmed cases and 1,94,488 deaths.) The government’s inability to meet citizen’s needs amid the pandemic has contributed to an overall disaffection with the country’s institutions and officials. Peru would need a stable government to not just tackle the health crisis but also address the issue of corruption that has stalled the infrastructure development and education sector. The next president would have to also work with the Congress in which neither have a majority- Castillo’s party has 37 seats and Fujimori’s party holds 24 seats in the of the 130 seats Congress. The fragmented Congress would mean that they would have to moderate their stand to attract the support of the other parties and form coalitions. The new government would have to address issue of rural development, urban economic growth and income equality. As with the rest of Latin America, high inequality, rising unemployment, violence and the economy remain major concerns of the common people.
For Latin America as a whole, these two elections could preview the direction in which other countries may be heading, where establishment parties are losing support and new parties and candidates are gaining ground with promises to spend more to address the rise in poverty and the voters dissatisfied with government’s response to the raging pandemic. Latin America has long been among the world’s most unequal regions, but that gap has grown since the pandemic hit, and vaccination drives got off to a slow start. Lawmakers have tapped into the anger to pass new wealth taxes and release tens of billions of dollars from private pension funds. Governments are running larger deficits, seeing their credit ratings cut and are fighting an upsurge in inflation. Violence also continues to be a common factor. Both Peru and Mexico have witnessed election related violence, challenging the democratic institutions and the voters.
*Dr. Stuti Banerjee, Research Fellow, Indian Council of World Affairs, New Delhi.
Discalimer:Views expressed are personal.
According to President López Obrador, the first three transformations are the Independence of 1810; the Reform of 1861, which achieved the separation of church and state; and the Revolution of 1910. The Fourth Transformation, he defines as a revolutionary movement to wipe out all corruption, erase income disparities, and secure national self‐ sufficiency.
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Kate Linthivum, ALMO wants to Transform Mexico. An election may stop him, Los Angeles Times, 31 May 2021,https://www.latimes.com/world-nation/story/2021-05-31/mexicos-amlo-has-a-big-vision-for-change-it-all-depends-on-midterm-elections, Accessed on 19 June 2021.
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