Leading Candidate’s Achilles Heel Puts Mexico’s Ruling Party in a Bind

  • Interior minister leads polls of PRI presidential hopefuls
  • Osorio Chong’s tenure has seen record levels of homicides

Mexico’s Interior Minister Miguel Angel Osorio Chong has overseen a surge in the murder rate and the escape from prison of an infamous drug lord, yet remains the ruling party’s most popular contender for next year’s presidential election. That doesn’t say much for their chance of success.

Miguel Angel Osorio Chong

Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

While members of the Institutional Revolutionary Party back Osorio Chong, many analysts see him as un-electable in a campaign where voter dissatisfaction with public security will be a top issue.

Osorio Chong is running more than 10 points behind leftist former Mexico City mayor Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador in recent surveys, while polling twice as much as his nearest competitor from within the PRI. The party must now decide whether to choose someone with less name recognition but a broader potential appeal as its risks slipping into third place behind Lopez Obrador and the National Action Party.

The PRI need to "establish themselves as the alternative to Lopez Obrador, and it’s not going to happen with Osorio Chong,” said Jorge Chabat, a political scientist at the Center for Economic Research and Teaching, a Mexico City-based university. “He’s clearly vulnerable based on the portfolio he’s been in charge of.”

The press office of the interior ministry declined to comment on questions about Osorio Chong’s political future or make him available for an interview.

Under Osorio Chong’s watch, homicides in Mexico jumped 29 percent in the first half of the year to more than 12,000, the most for any comparable period since at least 2001, according to data from the nation’s interior ministry. That includes the previous deadliest years of Mexico’s drug war under President Enrique Pena Nieto’s predecessor, Felipe Calderon, from 2010 to 2012.

Redoubling Efforts

In his State of the Nation speech this month, Pena Nieto called for Mexico to redouble efforts against violence, saying that restoring peace to the nation is the biggest demand of society. The drug war has spread to top beach resorts like Cancun and Los Cabos, triggering a U.S. State Department travel advisory and endangering a tourism industry that generates $20 billion annually.

Pena Nieto is expected to have the ultimate choice on his party’s candidate for the election next July, even as his own popularity sinks. The candidate by law must be chosen by early next year, but most analysts expect the decision to come towards the end of 2017.

Osorio Chong was backed by 22 percent of potential voters in August, more than double the next candidate, according to a Buendia & Laredo poll. Outgoing State of Mexico Governor Eruviel Avila got 10 percent, followed by Tourism Minister Enrique de la Madrid and Health Minister Jose Narro. Former PRI head Manlio Fabio Beltrones, Finance Minister Jose Antonio Meade and Education Minister Aurelio Nuno all had just 3 percent support. The poll of 1,000 people had a 3.5 percentage point margin of error.

Pena Nieto has a good argument to ignore those polls because they’re largely a response to name recognition, said Alejandro Moreno, the director of opinion polling for El Financiero, Bloomberg’s TV partner in Mexico.

"Name recognition isn’t necessarily that important an advantage, because knowledge of the candidate grows very quickly once someone is officially chosen," Moreno said.

‘El Chapo’

Osorio Chong was blamed for perhaps the most embarrassing security blunder of Pena Nieto’s administration -- the July 2015 escape from prison of drug kingpin Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman. The escape was Guzman’s second, and he fled the maximum-security Altiplano prison in the State of Mexico through a mile-long, underground tunnel equipped with lighting, ventilation and a motorcycle on rails.

While Guzman was eventually recaptured and extradited to the U.S., Osorio Chong was widely criticized for the event. In addition, in 2015 Osorio Chong faced questions regarding reports that his wife bought a home from a government contractor, raising concerns about conflict of interest. Osorio Chong denied that the home belonged to his family.

Rather than Osorio Chong, Pena Nieto should favor a technocrat who can deepen the structural changes he has overseen in areas like energy and education, said Alejandro Schtulmann, who runs the political-risk consultancy Empra in Mexico City.

"Going into the campaign, Osorio is going to be the guy who oversaw this large increase of insecurity in Mexico," Schtulmann said. "For the PRI, it would be easier to have someone completely new and build the candidacy from scratch."

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