Instead of Draining It, Mexico's Presidential Candidate Gets Mired in the Swamp

Updated on
  • Candidate struggles to distance himself from PRI’s problems
  • Meade sees support fall as new allegations against PRI surface

Jose Antonio Meade speaks to members of the media in Washington, D.C., on Oct. 13, 2017. 

Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

Presidential candidate Jose Antonio Meade was meant to turn over a new leaf for Mexico’s ruling party. It’s not working out like that.

Mired in corruption allegations and with dismal approval ratings, the Institutional Revolutionary Party chose the former finance minister as its candidate in November because of his clean image. It was the first time in the PRI’s nine decade history that it had chosen a non-party member as its candidate.

Yet events keep dragging Meade back into the quagmire of graft accusations that surround the party. Two ministries that the candidate once led are now in the spotlight amid new scandals involving the misuse of government funds, forcing him to defend government officials, while distancing himself from the events. All that is distracting voters from his pledges to crack down on corruption, just six months before the election.

"If these issues aren’t cleared up soon, they could cause great damage" to Meade’s campaign, said Javier Oliva, a political scientist at Mexico’s National Autonomous University.

Meade has been forced to explain that he wasn’t even at the two ministries at the center of the latest scandals when the events took place. At the same time, he has evaded questions on how to prosecute corrupt officials in the current administration and praised the ruling PRI party’s methods of governing.

Latest Polls

In a poll released Wednesday, Meade’s approval dropped in January to 18.2 percent, while his rivals rose. Backing for the opposition PAN-PRD candidate Ricardo Anaya increased to 20.4 percent and leftist Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador -- who may benefit most from Meade’s campaign malaise -- polled first with 23.6 percent.

Meade’s support has fallen since Alejandro Gutierrez, who formerly controlled the PRI’s financial accounts, was arrested in December on accusations he helped funnel 250 million pesos ($13.3 million) in public money to political campaigns in Chihuahua state. The money was allegedly sent to the state by the Finance Ministry, Reforma newspaper reported in December.

Since then, state Governor Javier Corral has kept up the pressure on the government with daily accusations that federal funds are now being withheld from the state in retaliation for the corruption trial. The finance ministry has denied the allegations.

In another case, a news website alleged the Social Development Ministry misused anti-poverty funds. Meade has denied any wrongdoing and his campaign has said it may sue the website.

No Chance

"I don’t think the PRI party has a chance," said Alejandro Schtulmann, who heads political risk consultancy Empra. "Meade’s value would have been to present himself as a citizen candidate supported by the PRI. That support needed to be conditional on a very clear anti-corruption agenda. Instead, he did just the opposite."

He’s spent most of his time convincing rank-and-file PRIistas that he supports them even if he’s not from their party, Schtulmann said. For Federico Estevez, a political-science professor at Mexico’s Autonomous Institute of Technology, it’s too soon to tell if Meade will be hurt by the scandals given that the election hasn’t officially begun and he’s still considered a preliminary candidate.

Meade’s campaign wrote in a statement that "noise" from Chihuahua shouldn’t affect him. The accusations are merely a smoke screen used to hide rising violence in the border state and to promote the PAN-PRD’s presidential candidate, they said. Federal transfers to Chihuahua have been legal and have no political bias, the campaign said.

The daily onslaught from Chihuahua is just a taste of what Meade may face as elections inch closer. Every detail of the Chihuahua trial will be open to the public thanks to new oral trials that the state implemented as part of an eight-year overhaul backed by the U.S. to increase judicial transparency in Mexico.

A growing list of top PRI officials, from eight former governors to the former CEO of state oil giant Pemex, have come under scrutiny in recent months amid corruption accusations. Chihuahua’s former Governor Cesar Duarte of the PRI party fled to the U.S. to avoid prosecution in Mexico and has yet to be arrested despite various Mexican arrest warrants with his name on them.

Meade appears to be getting the message about the need to shift gears. On Tuesday, he called on all parties to join forces to appoint anti-corruption officials and to end impunity in Mexico.

"In a country of laws, justice should not depend on who holds the presidency," Meade stated. "The end of impunity is only possible through credible institutions that provide results. We must take charge immediately of this structural issue."

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