What Mexico's Voters Really Want

The missing can't vote.

Photographer: HECTOR GUERRERO/AFP/Getty Images

Mexico’s voters go to the polls on Sunday to choose all 500 members of its lower house, nine governors, more than 300 mayors and half its state legislatures. The elections mark the midpoint of President Enrique Pena Nieto's term. He came into office pledging revolutionary reforms of Mexico's economy. How are things going?

Let's just say they could be better. When international headlines flip from “Mexico’s Moment” to “The Mexican Morass,” you know you have a problem.

Pena Nieto hasn't been idle. He's delivered a bundle of useful reforms -- but they have yet to spark the revolution he promised. Mexico’s economy continues to grow too slowly. High-profile corruption cases have enveloped the administration in a miasma of scandal. Criminal barbarism, often abetted or perpetrated by security forces, seems ever more like business as usual. Trust in institutions, from the army and the Catholic Church to politicians and parties, has eroded further.

Not all of this is Pena Nieto's fault. He had no control over the plunge in oil prices, which stymied hopes that his bold energy reforms would bring in $20 billion more a year in foreign investment. U.S. monetary policy, as always, has complicated Mexico's efforts to stimulate its economy. No iron fist could instantly stop the drug trade that has killed more than 70,000, and caused another 22,000 to disappear, since 2006. No amount of spending can quickly turn ill-trained, poorly motivated police into the Swiss Guard.

Mexico's Oil

Yet such excuses only go so far. They don’t explain why, for instance, foreign investment in Mexico actually fell by 49 percent last year. They don’t account for the financial scandals that embroiled the president, his wife, his finance minister, the director of Mexico’s National Water Commission and one of the country’s biggest toll-road operators –- to mention just a few murky episodes. They don’t excuse the president's decision to downplay gang violence, much less his seeming reluctance to investigate some of the most horrific cases, including the still-unsolved disappearance of 43 students last September.

Outrage over crime, corruption and impunity has brought hundreds of thousands of Mexicans into the streets. Regardless, Pena Nieto and his Institutional Revolutionary Party are likely to retain power this weekend. Mexico’s opposition parties are fractured and face their own corruption scandals; they can't effectively challenge the PRI on a national level. Polls suggest that with its ally, the Green Party, the PRI will still control Mexico’s legislature come Monday.

Bleak as all this may seem, Mexico's situation is retrievable. For one thing, it's too soon to abandon hope that Pena Nieto can rise to the challenge: He appears to understand the issues and he's a politician of genuine talent. For another, in the future, he and the rest of Mexico's political leadership can expect a firmer push in the right direction.

Frustrated by the unresponsiveness of politicians and parties, Mexicans are turning to civil society to find their voice. Such groups were instrumental in toughening the law that created Mexico’s new anti-corruption apparatus, and also in pushing candidates in this election to disclose their income and assets. This election may also see the first gubernatorial victory by an independent candidate, in the state of Nuevo Leon. And because the new members of the lower house can now run for re-election, they may pay closer attention to what their constituents, as opposed to their party leaders, want.

This empowering of Mexico’s citizens, if it gathers force, could change the country. Continued public pressure will be essential, for instance, in making sure that the new National Anti-Corruption System is not watered down, and in pushing Pena Nieto to rethink his craven reversal on teacher testing, the heart of his educational reforms. Civic engagement has already been more effective than federal interventions in cutting crime and reforming the police in places such as Monterrey and Ciudad Juarez.

Don't be misled if Mexico appears to vote for the status quo: The country is far from content. Increasingly, though, it is doing something about it. In recognizing the limits of top-down party politics, its citizens can make their representatives more responsive and advance the bottom-up transformation Mexico needs. 

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.