In July of this year, Mexico will vote to elect a new president to succeed Enrique Peña Nieto along with membership changes in the Chamber of Deputies and Senate. Although the situation appears eerily similar to past election campaigns, if the present controversial front-runner succeeds, the Mexican government’s approaches to economics, foreign affairs, and criminal justice may change momentously, with radical implications for the whole of North America.

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Faith in democracy is slipping across the Americas. Nearly half of the 43,000 citizens recently polled by USAID in Latin America – 49% of Mexicans in particular – stated that they would hypothetically support a military coup in order to address their most stubborn problems of corruption and violence. Nevertheless, democracy will march on as planned: no fewer than eight elections will take place in Latin America between March and October this year.

In such a short time frame, and considering the comparatively long administrative terms in the Western hemisphere, these few months could witness significant geopolitical turbulence. A second ‘marea rosa’, or ‘pink tide’ (as the post-Cold War pivot to the Left was known) is certainly hoped for among sections of the Mexican electorate, this time with the nomination of radical populist Andrés Manuel López Obrador. Many others, including legislators in Washington, are despairing at that notion.

On the 1st of July, Mexicans will elect a new president to succeed Enrique Peña Nieto for a six year term, along with 500 members of the Chamber of Deputies and 128 Senators. As with any election, there are a number of major domestic and regional challenges facing whoever emerges victorious, and considering the Mexican constitutional limit of how large a legislative majority can be, any attempt at tackling them will require compromises. However, if the present controversial front-runner succeeds in July, the Mexican government’s approaches to economics, foreign affairs, and criminal justice may change momentously.

I. Parties & Personnel

To a degree, Mexico’s social diversity is reflected in its political infrastructure, and there are more major parties vying for the executive than in many other democracies. Complex and perhaps unstable coalitions have been built across traditional political divides, and the race will most probably be won by one of three experienced, male, presumptive nominees.

First: conservative former lawyer Ricardo Anaya Cortés heads a coalition led by the PAN, the party of former presidents Vicente Fox and Felipe Calderón. Second: José Antonio Meade Kuribreña, a bureaucrat with ministerial experience in foreign affairs, energy, and social development, heads the PRI-led coalition. It is reasonable to presume that a new government led by one of them would cause little immediate geopolitical change. But, the fact that Meade Kuribreña’s party held power for 71 years until the very end of the twentieth century is the most glaring example of why Mexicans might favour a more radical candidate, especially one who runs on an anti-corruption ticket. That third candidate is Andrés Manuel López Obrador, or ‘AMLO’.

Two prominent women will contribute to the race in the coming weeks as well. Former first lady and congresswoman Margarita Zavala, and María de Jesús Patricio Martínez of the National Indigenous Congress are two important voices helping to shape debates, particularly on interior affairs of health and social justice. Although neither of them is a probable contender for office, their roles in directing national conversations may prove decisive.

In terms of the main issues of the upcoming campaigns, foreign policy will certainly feature – relations with the United States and China, NAFTA re-negotiation, and transnational criminal activity are all of interest. Evidently, however, the most pressing issues for voters are much closer to home. Unsurprisingly, the preponderant issue overall is the ‘war on drugs’, but this is a complex phenomenon that incorporates law enforcement, military policy, public health, socio-economics, financial robustness, race, the judiciary, and foreign affairs as well as counter-narcotics. The candidates will not need reminding that Mexico just underwent its most homicidal year on record (Over 23,000 people were murdered in 2017, among them 62 mayors and half a dozen prominent political journalists).

II. ‘Hugs, not Bullets’

Andrés Manuel López Obrador, often known by the acronym AMLO, is the presumptive candidate for the MORENA party. He is a 64-year-old Roman Catholic from southern Tabasco, with a political focus on welfare, official transparency, and social equality. As the third political heavyweight in the fight, López Obrador will be launching his March campaign on demolishing what he sees as a regressive status quo, specifically regarding national security.

Leftist, nationalist, populist, and in some ways isolationist, AMLO is a former Head of Government for Mexico City, and two-time presidential runner up. Polls are, of course, just polls, and his current significant lead carries an ominous element of déjà vu: he has been in precisely this position twice before, and to no eventual victory. However, this is a man whose previous political successes indicate that his appeal cannot be attributed superficially to the ‘Trump effect’ of heightened Mexican nationalism.

Standing in the way of a legitimate election in July will be a number of attempts to interfere in the political discourse. Disinformation is already being evidenced online and in foreign news outlets, and regional governments are already wading in to predict ‘another Venezuela’.

Geopolitically, López Obrador is of great interest because of his potential to rock the boats of economics, corruption and violent conflict, not just in Mexico but also across the hemisphere. He seeks to elevate Mexico firstly by changing its involvement in the NAFTA bloc, secondly by clamping down on endemic corruption, and thirdly by tackling drug-related violence in an entirely different way to his predecessors.

The main beast of the economic debate over the campaign will be the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which ties much of the three economies of Mexico, Canada, and the US together within a trading bloc. One of AMLO’s advisors has stated that a Mexican NAFTA pull-out would not be disastrous; arguably a rhetorical reaction against Donald Trump’s threats. But in reality, that situation would deal a severe blow for Mexican exports. A re-structuring of the agreement may be far more beneficial for middle class Mexicans, and this will become increasingly likely if American representatives gain momentum after their mid-term vote. Given the complexity of the deal, however, current laudable efforts to diversify the Mexican economy may already be making an impact by the time NAFTA affairs have progressed in any meaningful way.

AMLO’s counter-narcotics strategy revolves around significantly enhancing the welfare system, eschewing American partnership, and actually offering amnesty to participants in the violent drug trade. He has referred to it as a ‘hugs, not bullets’ strategy. He has said: “I will achieve peace and end the war—we are not going to continue with the same strategy that hasn’t brought us positive results. By the middle of my six-year term, there will be no war, and the situation will be completely different.” By redirecting billions of dollars’ worth of funding away from physically battling the cartels, López Obrador’s approach would necessarily alter national security policy, and could impact on the production and consumption trends of the other nations in which Mexican drug cartels operate: Colombia, Peru, Bolivia, the United States, and the states of Central America for instance. Perhaps most significantly, he plans on cancelling all militarised cooperation with the US. Over the last decade, armour and weaponry have been donated to Mexico, and have directly caused a dramatic rise in the lethality and brutality of the drug cartels by spurring an arms race as the cartels strive to keep pace with government forces. AMLO’s bottom-up approach could be a turning point in the war, and a signal to Latin American partners to follow suit in moving away from the Washington consensus.

III. Disinformation & Intervention Risks

Aside from the capability of his opponents, and the various supposed benefits of their policies, López Obrador faces a significant obstacle in the form of electoral intervention. Such espionage is nothing new, but it is becoming more evidenced in democracies across the world; in light of this week’s indictment of a dozen Russians over the US election, it is at the forefront of many political minds. With specific regards to interference in Mexico this July, there can be identified several threats, vulnerabilities, and risks against a free and fair election.

With regards to threats, the two most significant types of interventions will be foreign actors on the one hand, and illegal domestic groups on the other. There is already evidence of covert Russian state activity in this case, and the Kremlin has demonstrated the capability and the intention of altering political discourse very recently. Accusations of collusion remain baseless, but AMLO may benefit slightly from favourable coverage from foreign news, and the thousands of online bots used as tools of harassment against critical journalists. Other candidates will need to tread carefully too: last month, Mexico’s National Organization Against Corruption deleted a Twitter survey due to fake accounts favouring Meade Kuribreña.

Domestically, groups such as drug cartels and armed autodefensas organisations have long exercised methods of social persuasion well beyond any kind of empirical measurement. Their programmes of social finance, ‘hearts and minds’ doctrines, and, of course, savage repression, have in the past caused some communities to vote in line. Electoral monitors would need to monitor financial flows and public service funding at an unprecedented scale in order to notice this, and there will be no sign of improvement until the policing units are protected from cartel penetration. It is also worth noting that, as gang and cartel recruitment gradually moves into the realm of social media, it cannot be assumed that such criminal organisations are not fully tech-savvy.

With regards to Mexico’s vulnerabilities, social media usage is crucial. Only about 60 million Mexicans (<50%) regularly use social media outlets such as Facebook and Twitter – the environments where bots and foreign agents can exploit algorithms and significantly sway political voting, but this is a sector conducive to political polarisation. It is also a much larger section of the population than that which consumes foreign-owned news media. Relatively isolated media users, as well as those currently living within or near criminal ‘jurisdictions’, will be most at risk of unfair voting activity.

To combine the vulnerabilities and threats of electoral meddling paints a concerning, but picture of the risk of illegitimacy, but one that is not yet alarming. It is beyond doubt that interference is already taking place, and somewhat ironic that these factors may provide a net benefit for AMLO’s anti-corruption campaign. As was observed in the US election, and others in Colombia, Turkey, and Western Europe, however, the interference is unlikely to be the ultimate deciding factor for Mexico; it will cement voting preferences, but it cannot yet compete with more ‘traditional’ means of acquiring votes.

IV. Summary

It should be remembered that López Obrador (AMLO), the current frontrunner in the Mexican national election scheduled for the 1st of July, has been in this very position twice before, and did not win. The logistics of succeeding on a left-wing populist agenda are comparatively more difficult within an electorate that is educated, and has access to global media (in other words, promises of increased public spending are far harder to realise than counter-part conservative promises to make fiscal cuts). Factors that do play in López Obrador’s favour this time around include his command of social media, his evident backing from certain foreign actors, and the seemingly endless fuel for nationalism coming from the White House. Most importantly, however, is the genral public’s intensifying anger and exhaustion against the ongoing drug war. AMLO’s argument that the war is regressive has a mountain of evidence behind it, but he will need to fully convince voters that hugs, not bullets, are the way forward.

Standing in the way of a legitimate election in July will be a number of attempts to interfere in the political discourse. Disinformation is already being evidenced online and in foreign news outlets, and regional governments are already wading in to predict ‘another Venezuela’. But, the interference activity of illegal domestic groups may prove more forceful.

Geopolitically, the risk-averse status quo in the Americas – motivated by the United States – would not look favourably on a radical Leftist entering the government residence in Los Pinos, Mexico City. AMLO’s proposed policies, which would of course be subject to stiff Congressional obstruction, could alter the hemispheric power balance.

Suggested Reading:

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Jonny Elswood is a Scottish security analyst with expertise in counter-narcotics and non-state groups. Jonny has degrees in Political Science from St Andrews and Glasgow University, and recently completed a NATO Military Security course in Lithuania. He has contributed policy research for a political group in the Central African Republic, and currently focuses on organised crime analytics for Intelligence Fusion.

For an in-depth, bespoke briefing on this or any other geopolitical topic, consider Encylopedia Geopolitica’s intelligence consulting services.

Photo credit: Israel Rosas


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