Less than three weeks remain before the polls open for Mexico’s latest round of gubernatorial, provincial and municipal elections on 5th June 2016.

As voters ponder their choices before a colourful bombardment of TV ads, flyers, posters and painted walls, the ‘all in against the PRI’ scenario continues to unfold, characterised by internal disputes and candidate mudslinging (El Daily Post, 04.2016).

The PRI can be expected to retain its congressional majority, even though the main opposition parties (the right-leaning PAN, left-wing PRD and ultra-left MORENA) have already made big investments in eventually toppling its dominance.

Over the last six years, the PRI has held gubernatorial posts in nine of the 12 states on offer. It has never lost a gubernatorial election in Quintana Roo, Veracruz, Tamaulipas, Hidalgo or Durango.

But this year’s territorial reshuffle is anybody’s guess. Unlikely PAN-PRD alliances, which were famously tested for the first time in 2010 to dislodge the PRI from the states of Oaxaca, Puebla and Sinaloa, are back for a rematch (Milenio, 18.01.2016). Meanwhile, after gaining representation in Congress last year, MORENA is lurching forward in a bid to win its first-ever gubernatorial post – a big step beyond its Mexico City stronghold (Buenos Aires Herald, 10.06.2015)

The full list of vacancies is as follows (Marco Mares, 2016):

  • 12 gubernatorial positions in the states of Aguascalientes, Chihuahua, Durango, Hidalgo, Oaxaca, Puebla, Quintana Roo, Sinaloa, Tamaulipas, Tlaxcala, Veracruz and Zacatecas.
  • 388 local deputy positions in the states of Aguascalientes (27), Baja California (25), Hidalgo (30), Quintana Roo (25), Tlaxcala (25), Chihuahua (33), Oaxaca (42), Sinaloa (40), Veracruz (50), Durango (25), Tamaulipas (36) and Zacatecas (30).
  • 965 mayoral positions in the states of Aguascalientes (11), Baja California (5), Hidalgo (84), Quintana Roo (10), Tlaxcala (60), Chihuahua (67), Oaxaca (570), Sinaloa (18), Durango (39), Tamaulipas (43) and Zacatecas (58).  
  • 60 positions in the Constitutional Assembly (Mexico City).

The elections will be an important precursor to the race for ‘Los Pinos’ – Mexico’s equivalent to the White House – in July 2018. However, international observers sometimes overlook the impact on local-level politics and security in key strategic states, as well as the central role of informal networks.

The following are are three contests to keep an eye on, with inter-gubernatorial candidate dynamics mapped against brief electoral risk assessments:

Key Industries: Oil/Gas and Manufacturing.

Candidate Dynamics: In Tamaulipas, the PRI’s decision to expel three of its mayoral candidates over ‘links to organised crime’ on 8th May caught global attention (El Universal, 08.05.2016). According to the PRI’s national leader, Fabio Beltrones, the candidates for the municipalities of Hidalgo, Mainero and Villagrán were ‘threatened or purchased’ by local criminal networks to back the PAN’s gubernatorial candidate, Francisco García Cabeza de Vaca.

At first glace, Tamaulipas is finally beginning to talk seriously about the influence of organised crime on local politics. Cabeza de Vaca, who is a Senator and former Mayor of Reynosa (2005-2007), has been the subject of numerous accusations of illicit association with the Gulf Cartel since 2005 (including from the DEA in 2015) (Chron, 18.12.2015). Even well before that, he was allegedly detained in Texas in 1986 on charges of stealing weapons (Segundo a Segundo, 22.04.2015).

But upon closer inspection, the PRI’s own candidate, Baltazar Hinojosa Ochoa, was himself accused in 2012 of receiving illicit funds from the Gulf Cartel for his 2002 mayoral campaign in Matamoros (Proceso, 28.01.2016).

In addition, Beltrones’ accusations against Cabeza de Vaca are not based on any verifiable evidence: embarrassingly, a photograph of armed men riding a pickup truck with Cabeza de Vaca’s logo on the window, which was circulated on social media as ‘evidence’, was found to be a doctored version of an original taken of self-defence vigilantes (and a different logo) in Michoacán two years ago (Mexico News Daily, 14.05.2016).

This kind of PRI-PAN mudslinging ties into the gradual putrefaction of Tamaulipas itself. The elections will not be peaceful, and they will not be properly monitored: On 8th May, the National Electoral Institute (INE) announced a suspension of its work in Matamoros, Reynosa and Ciudad Victoria because of acute security risks (Radio Formula, 2016). Expect an annulment of results if the INE fails to find a suitable strategy before June.  

Electoral Risk Assessment: ‘‘The truth is that there are no saints in the political world of Tamaulipas. All too many politicians in that state, from all parties, have had over the years some contact, some run-in, some something with gangsters. Different parties might play the game of who is worse, but the fact is that no one is really good.’’ – Alejandro Hope, the leading organised crime expert at El Daily Post (13.05.2016).

As Hope pointed out on 12 May, criminal networks operating in Tamaulipas will go to extreme lengths to secure economic resources, intelligence, weapons and municipal budgets (El Daily Post, 05.2016).

On the ground, it appears that state officials can do little about it. In an interview with El Universal on 4th May, PRD candidate Jorge Valdez Vargas lamented that officials from the Interior Secretariat (SEGOB) in Tamaulipas had simply given up on trying to shield the electoral process because violence had become ‘the norm’ (Red Politica, 04.05.2016)

‘‘We continue saying that we will not negotiate with criminals; we will only negotiate with the people,’’ said Valdez.

But can it ever be as simple as that in Tamaulipas? Former President Vicente Fox (PAN, 2000-2006) would suggest otherwise (Mexico News Daily, 12.05.2016).  

Key Industries: Mining

Candidate Dynamics: The PRI’s Esteban Villegas Villarreal, who has been Mayor of Durango City since 2013, is the favourite to win. In 2014, he was accused by the PAN of overspending public funds on his personal image, although this now seems to have backfired (Durango al Dia, 05.01.2016): in late April, a poll conducted by El Universal (25.04.2016) suggested that he was at least 15 points ahead of the PAN-PRD candidate, Senator José Rosas Aispuro.

Aispuro, who is a former Mayor of Victoria de Durango (2001-2004), suffers from a reputational disadvantage. Prior to his departure from the PRI in 2010, he was accused of being linked to drug cartels (e.g. the Beltrán Leyva network), and was also implicated in the 2012 Walmart bribery scandal (Tercera Vía, 18.01.2016).

The influential Labour Party candidate, Alejandro González (also known as ‘Gonzalo Yáñez’), has made a strong case for supporting the local mining sector (El Siglo de Durango, 15.04.2016). However, he will only be a strong contender if Villegas fails to capitalise on his advantage.

Electoral Risk Assessment: The INE and the state Secretary of Public Security, Noel Díaz Rodríguez, are reportedly at odds over the threat of violence on Election Day. While the INE has warned of a definite risk of violence and ballot box theft (causing the PAN to solicit a federal protection unit), Rodríguez has insisted otherwise (La Voz de Durango, 10.04.2016).

It should be noted, however, that Rodríguez has just eight months experience in his position (Contacto Hoy, 2016). The question over whether he fully understands the security situation in Durango will surely be answered on Election Day.

Key Industries: Tourism and Agriculture

Candidate Dynamics: Oaxaca’s gubernatorial race will be won or lost between Alejandro Murat (PRI-PVEM-PANAL) and José Estefan Garcías (PAN-PRD).

Estefan will be looking to repeat the success of Gabino Cué, who ousted the PRI for the first time in 2010 under a PAN-PRD-Labour Party alliance. Murat, however, has a strong backing from Peña Nieto’s elite network (he was a key member of the President’s transition team in 2012) (Proceso, 29.01.2016) which would have partially enabled him to overcome a legal challenge to his eligibility (he is not a native to Oaxaca) (Proceso, 23.04.2016)

On 4th April, Murat and other members of his campaign team were listed in the Panama Papers scandal (Quadratin, 04.04.2016). However, this has done little to crack his momentum: on 9th May, a poll conducted by Excelsior suggested he had a 7% voter preference lead over Estefan.

Electoral Risk Assessment: Oaxaca represents the front line between Peña Nieto’s Secretary of Education, Aurelio Nuñez, and the dissident Section 22 of the radical teachers union, the National Coordinator of Education Workers (CNTE), which continues to aggressively reject the new teacher evaluations.

The reforms, which are designed to raise quality and banish bureaucracy in the education sector, must be implemented successfully if Nuñez is to get a smooth ride to the PRI’s presidential candidacy in 2018. For that, a Murat victory is essential.

As was seen last year in the southern states, the CNTE will likely try to sabotage the elections in further protest of the reforms (most likely via street marches or attacks on polling booths) (International Business Times, 06.05.2015). Widespread strikes began on 15 May (Teachers Day); and while observers can expect a tough response from the Federal Police, the run-up to the elections could become more dangerous as Nuñez hardens his fist (Despertar de Oaxaca, 14.05.2016).  

Beware of the Underdogs
As these examples show, Mexico’s gubernatorial elections are once again being tainted by the influence of organised crime, elite personal gain and public disenchantment with the ruling administration.

Last year, it was precisely this condition that allowed for the historic victory of independent candidate Jaime Rodríguez (alias ‘El Bronco’) in Nuevo León, as well as surge of MORENA – led by the influential Andrés López Obrador – in the central regions.

This year’s running includes a sizeable list of ‘Bronco-wannabes.’ Any independent victory (keep an eye on Aguascalientes and Chihuahua) would surely boost El Bronco’s aspirations for the presidency in 2018.

Elsewhere, if MORENA displaces the PRD as Mexico’s primary left-wing opposition party, the blueprint for López Obrador’s next shot at ‘Los Pinos’ will be finalised.