The 2006 Mexican Presidential Elections and the Future of U.S.-Mexico Relations
Cynthia Arnson, Woodrow Wilson Center
José Antonio Fernández, FEMSA & co-chair, Mexico Institute
Roger W. Wallace, Pioneer Natural Resources and co-chair, Mexico Institute
With the 2006 Mexican presidential elections rapidly approaching, all eyes are on our neighbor to the south on who it will choose as its next leader. The race among several candidates who represent very different proposals for Mexican society is close, and many believe that the outcome will define the future of Mexico's relationship with the United States and the world. On May 26, 2006 the Mexico Institute held a seminar on the implications of these elections for both Mexico's future and its foreign policy.
Cynthia Arnson emphasized the importance of the elections not only for Mexico, but for the relationship Mexico maintains with the United States as well as the rest of Latin America. Roger Wallace praised the Mexico Institute for having a working advisory board that offers a breadth of perspective and is committed to the bilateral relationship—he noted that most of those participating in the conference were part of that board. José Antonio Fernández asserted that the strength of Mexican institutions will play a crucial role in ensuring that whoever is elected acts responsibly as President. He emphasized Mexico's responsibility to continue working on its relationship with the United States so that together they can face their common long-term challenges, including migration, eradicating poverty, establishing long-lasting security, and ensuring human and political rights.
Roundtable I: Prospects for the Mexican Elections
Enrique Krauze, Letras Libres
Lorenzo Meyer, El Colegio de México
Jacqueline Peschard, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México
Moderator: Andrew Selee, Woodrow Wilson Center
Enrique Krauze argued that Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the candidate of the left-of-center Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD), represents a form of "political messianism." Krauze cited López Obrador's personal conviction that he embodies the will of the people and his disregard for institutions as emblematic of messianic tendencies. Krauze put forth three possible scenarios for the election. The first but least likely would be for López Obrador to lose by a wide margin. If, in the second scenario, López Obrador were to lose by a small percentage, Krauze anticipated that he would lash out at the Federal Electoral Institute (IFE) and support mass mobilizations, especially if the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) candidate Roberto Madrazo were willing to join him in mobilizing the public. The third—and highly likely—scenario is that López Obrador could win the elections. In this case, Krauze anticipated that a messianic leader would present a "historic challenge" to Mexican democracy, even though he was confident that Mexican institutions are strong enough to deal with this. Federalism has become a tangible reality, and there have been notable improvements in the separation of powers, an autonomous judiciary, and freedom of the press.
Lorenzo Meyer took exception to the statements made by Krauze about López Obrador, calling them fear tactics. He pointed out that during López Obrador's term as mayor of Mexico City, he did not act as a messiah but rather a responsible administrator. In response to concern that López Obrador might not respect Mexican institutions, Meyer cited a need for a more complete democratic transition in Mexico because the current institutional framework in place has not changed sufficiently. He emphasized that many institutions lack legitimacy, and that due to the Mexican cultural norm of bending the rules, a gap has been created between what is legal and what actually works in Mexico.
Meyer highlighted various characteristics of the elections themselves. He commented that the PRI, who dominated Mexican politics for 71 years, is now becoming irrelevant. While it remains a strong force at regional levels, the party has largely disappeared without a fight from the national scene. This election has become a classic confrontation between very defined options of right and left. Politics has become profoundly polarized, which reflects the deep polarization of Mexican society itself where there is a huge concentration of capital on one side and a huge concentration of poverty on the other. Finally, Meyer said that all of the candidates are avoiding a discussion about foreign policy and relations with the United States.
Jacqueline Peschard agreed that there is a messianic aspect to López Obrador's character, but asserted that Mexican checks and balances will limit the degree to which this can actually influence the country's political future. Regarding the topic of polarization, she attributed the divide to a deeply unequal society rather than an ideologically segmented populace.
Peschard highlighted the strength of Mexico's electoral institutions and their ability to resolve any electoral disputes, and pointed out that the role of the electoral authorities has evolved with progression of the presidential campaigns. The race started out as a competition between three political parties where there was one clear leader (López Obrador) with two other candidates competing, and has become a close race between Felipe Calderón of the National Action Party (PAN) and López Obrador. During the first phase the role of the IFE was very discreet. After the first debate, however, polarization began to take place and the two competing parties asked the electoral authorities to play a more direct role. The contested issues, which the parties have asked the IFE to address, have mainly been about the limits of free speech in campaigning. Peschard commented that the IFE has moved from one side of the issue to the other, at first defending freedom of speech in its entirety, then being more restrictive on what candidates can say about each other. She pointed out that as the IFE has come to the center of the dispute its role has become more active and direct. She emphasized that the IFE has given the Mexican people confidence that the elections will be legal and fair, and pointed to the positive changes in the way state electoral institutions function, although acknowledging that not all state institutions are equally strong.
Roundtable II: Implications of the Elections for Mexico's Foreign Policy
b>Andrés Rozental, Consejo Mexicano de Asuntos Internacionales
James Jones, Manatt Jones Global Strategies
Javier Treviño, CEMEX
Susan Kaufman Purcell, University of Miami
Rafael Fernández de Castro, ITAM
Moderator: Andrew Selee, Woodrow Wilson Center
Andrés Rozental acknowledged that surprisingly little has been said of the candidates' respective stances on issues of foreign policy. He further stated that, not only has foreign policy been a marginal part of the public debate, but that there is no other topic on which the candidates differ more. Rozental asserted that López Obrador has an isolationist approach to foreign policy, only vaguely mentioning hemispheric initiatives such as the Organization of American States and NAFTA. Felipe Calderón, on the other hand, has been more vocal on issues of foreign policy, and will look after Mexico's interests in a global community, particularly with respect to the United States. Roberto Madrazo, who most panelists agreed is no longer a serious contender, has made most of his commentary on foreign matters in the form of criticism of President Fox's current policies. Rozental added that no matter who is declared the winner, Mexico's relationship with the United States will become more strained, and predicted that the cooperative disposition that characterized Fox's presidency will come to an end with after he leaves office.
James Jones differed from Rozental's assessment and instead suggested that Mexico's relationship with the United States, which is firmly rooted in economic interests, will not be significantly affected by the outcome of the election. He predicted that migration would continue to be a major issue in the relationship since the U.S. Congress is unlikely to be able to pass an immigration reform bill this year. With regard to the Mexican candidates, he noted that Calderón is similar in ideology to President Vicente Fox, but that he would have to address real differences between "haves" and "have nots" in Mexico. López Obrador would be likely to concentrate primarily on inequalities in Mexico and be less active on the global stage. This less active foreign policy might affect the tone of the relationship with the United States, but not the vital interests that are dealt with between the two countries. He noted that López Obrador is not a demagogue but rather an incredibly talented political strategist. He comes out of a background of exclusion and resentment against those who have great wealth, but he also understands that he cannot kill the growth engine of the private sector.
Javier Treviño stated that foreign policy will not be an important issue in the election, but it will be a defining issue for the next President once elected. He asserted that Madrazo would be more prudent and cautious than the current Fox administration, and López Obrador would present the biggest change. It is uncertain if López Obrador would continue support for the Security and Prosperity Partnership (SPP). Only Calderón would be certain to maintain the partnership, although Madrazo has indicated that he will keep parts of it as well. Treviño agreed that international issues have been placed on the backburner in the public debate in Mexico and as such, it will be even more crucial for the incoming administration to clearly define the nature of their foreign policy, including how to resolve the tenuous issue of immigration with the United States. Treviño also emphasized how the attention towards Mexico from the United States will vary depending on who wins in the midterm elections for the U.S. congress. Finally, he noted that foreign policy might be an arena where a future leader can build consensus in Mexico among the different political parties.
Susan Kaufman Purcell offered speculation on four factors that could change U.S.-Mexico relationship. First she cited public opinion in the United States that could be adversely affected if a "stand-offish" President were to be elected in Mexico who did not want to be actively engaged across the border. Second, the U.S. elections could affect the relationship, especially if border security becomes a high-profile issue in the 2006 congressional and 2008 U.S. presidential elections. Third, it depends on whether security or economics dominate the U.S. foreign policy agenda in coming years. She noted that Latin America tends to be primarily concerned with economic issues, so that when the United States is primarily concerned with security, the relationship tends to be that of "ships passing in the night." Finally, she suggested the possibility that the United States might be perceived as a declining power and wondered if Latin American countries might turn increasingly to partnerships with China. Purcell asserted that, while a cooperative, business-friendly energy policy would only emerge under Calderón, even López Obrador would have to nurture healthy relations with select business leaders.
Rafael Fernandez de Castro highlighted several of the obstacles the incoming president will face, such as transitioning to a regulated immigration system with the United States and reducing violence on the southern border and helping stabilize neighboring Guatemala. The new president will also be confronted with the "Chavez Challenge" as the populist Venezuelan president is likely to continue to extend his sphere of influence throughout Latin America. Fernández de Castro argued that cooperating with President George Bush has yielded few rewards for Mexico. He mentioned that because the U.S. foreign policy agenda has been preoccupied with Iraq, the door is wide open for Mexico to exert more leadership in the hemisphere. He doubted, however, the likelihood of any of the presidential candidates stepping up to that challenge.