Mexico’s PRI lost big in yesterday’s gubernatorial elections. Just six months ago party optimists boasted they might sweep all twelve of the governorships; preliminary results show they may get just five. The rout happened in places with the strongest party machines—Tamaulipas, Veracruz, Quintana Roo—where for the first time in over eighty years citizens put a different party in the executive branch. This alternation in power is an important step for local democracy.
Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s (AMLO) new MORENA party came in a strong second in Veracruz and won a plurality of the seats of Mexico City’s Constituent Assembly. Independent candidates gained ground taking the mayor’s office in Ciudad Juarez and finishing well in many other cities. The biggest winner was the PAN, gaining on its own or in coalition with the PRD seven governorships.
Yesterday’s elections hold lessons for the 2018 presidential race. While the chatter will definitely be about the rising threat AMLO poses, three months ago some thought MORENA would take Zacatecas, a week ago they thought the party could win Veracruz. Neither happened—showing he is beatable.
For the PRI, the elections hurt the political chances of its president Manlio Fabio Beltrones vis-à-vis the other half dozen pre-candidates for the party’s nomination. Even if a clean sweep was always unrealistic, more losses than electoral wins questions his ability to deliver.
The losses also cast doubt on the view that the PRI can win the 2018 elections with only its “hard vote”—roughly 25 to 30 percent of the population. Even though they came close to winning the largest number of ballots yesterday, to boost their presidential chances they have to appeal more broadly. A top concern for voters is corruption.
The PAN is already after this vote. Party president Ricardo Anaya celebrated the PAN’s historic wins in the face of corrupt and authoritarian governors and federal officials. Several of their governors-elect promised to run their administrations cleanly and efficiently, in pointed contrast to their PRI predecessors.
For the PRI, its leaders will have to do more than just express outrage over graft, since many of the prime alleged abusers come from their own party (including the exiting and former governors of Veracruz, Tamaulipas, and Nuevo León). They also control the Congress, whose job it is to get the new National Anti-Corruption System up and running. So far, the PRI’s senators have dragged their feet on anticorruption legislation, missing a supposedly firm May 28 deadline. They also have postponed several hearings on Ley 3de3, citizen proposed legislation that would better define corruption, give greater tools to those going after it, and require Mexican public officials to reveal their assets, tax returns, and potential conflicts of interest.
With Congress now scheduled to begin an extraordinary session June 13, the PRI has an opportunity to regroup, and even get out ahead on this issue. Only by doing so can they change the current default for Mexico’s political Rorschach inkblot test: when Mexicans see the PRI, they see corruption.