How the 2017 Mexican State Elections Generated a Competitive 2018 Presidential Race
The 2018 Mexican Presidential Election cycle unofficially began the day after the 2017 state elections were held early this June. Multiple political parties claimed victories over the same governor positions, argued the elections were ‘stolen’ by the winning candidates, and the different potential presidential candidates tried to spin the results in a narrative that furthers their own cause. However, the main takeaway of these state elections was that there was no clear winner and everything is up for grabs in the Presidential election next year.
The 2017 state elections at a glance
There were gubernatorial elections in the states of Mexico, Coahuila, and Nayarit, municipal elections in Coahuila, Nayarit, and Veracruz, and state-level congressional (deputies) elections in Coahuila and Nayarit. In the gubernatorial races, the centrist Revolutionary Institutional Party (PRI for its Spanish acronym) coalition won the positions in two of the three states (State of Mexico and Coahuila) albeit with significant accusations of vote buying and election fraud by the runner-ups (the left-wing Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO)-led National Regeneration Movement Party in the State of Mexico and the center-right-wing National Action Party in Coahuila). In the highly populated State of Mexico, which surrounds Mexico City, the PRI candidate Alfredo del Mazo defeated MORENA’s Delfina Gómez by a little less than 3 percentage points, while in the northern border state of Coahuila, the PRI’s Miguel Riquelme defeated the PAN’s Guillermo Anaya by 2.5 percentage points. In the small coastal state of Nayarit, the PAN+PRD coalition candidate Antonio Echeverría had a 12 percentage point margin of victory against the PRI-led coalition candidate Manuel Cota. The percentages per candidate and party for each of these three governor races are summarized in Figure 1.
Figure 1. 2017 Mexican state election results by candidate and party-coalition
Diving into the municipal level, the overall winner of this election was the right-wing PAN, who in coalition with the left-wing PRD in Nayarit and Veracruz, obtained victories in almost half (47%) of all the municipalities that were up for election. Meanwhile, the PRI-led coalition lost 39 percent of the municipalities it controlled in those states, the majority of them to the PAN, decreasing substantially the number of people governed in comparison with the previous cycle. The number of municipalities won by each national party can be observed in Figure 2. Figure 2. Municipalities won in the 2017 state elections by party or coalition
Source: Elaborated by the author with data from the INE and the OPLEs.
Note: The PVEM is the Spanish acronym for the Mexican Green Party, NA stands for the teacher’s union party New Alliance Party, MC stands for the left-wing Citizens Movement party, PES for the conservative Social Encounter Party, and PT for the left-wing Labor Party.
With respect to the local Congressional elections in Coahuila and Nayarit, voters elected a divided government, not giving any of the governors a legislature in which their party commands a majority. In the case of Coahuila, the PRI-led coalition holds 46 percent of the state legislature, compared to 37 percent held by the PAN and 11 percent by Morena. Meanwhile, in Nayarit, the PAN + PRD coalition won 36 percent of the seats over 32 percent by the PRI-led coalition and 13 percent by the center-left Citizen Movement party (MC for its Spanish acronym). The complete distribution of seats for both local houses can be observed in Figure 3.
Figure 3. 2017 Elections: State legislature distribution by party
Source: Elaborated by the author with data from the INE and the OPLEs.
Winners and losers of the 2018 election cycle The results of the 2017 state elections do not indicate clear nation-wide winners or losers from this election cycle. While it is true that the PRI-led coalition retained two of the three governorships that were up for election, it must be noted that these two states have always (since 1929) been governed by the PRI, and this time, their victories came by the smallest of margins. In 2011, the PRI-led coalition won Coahuila by a 25 percentage point margin and the State of Mexico by a 41 percentage point margin; this year their margins were both smaller than 3 percentage points.
The PAN’s president, Ricardo Anaya, has attempted to spin the election results as a decisive victory for his party; nevertheless, they only won the small state of Nayarit and failed to defeat the PRI at its weakest in the border state of Coahuila, a region where traditionally the PAN has been successful at winning elections. Additionally, Josefina Vázquez Mota’s performance in the State of Mexico elections was disastrous, as the PAN plummeted in preferences from being the top choice in late-2016 election surveys to a disappointing fourth place the day of the polls. Furthermore, even if the PAN + PRD alliance in Veracruz granted them victory in the majority of the municipalities (and in the recent 2016 race in which Miguel Ángel Yunes won the governorship for a shortened two-year cycle), López Obrador’s Morena has also proven itself an important political force in that state. This opens up the possibility that what could be PAN votes in the 2018 presidential and governor elections could end up being Morena votes thanks to a coattail effect coinciding with an election where the popular AMLO is running and dominating the media agenda.
Another takeaway from these elections is that a divided left is much less likely to win in Mexico. AMLO’s Morena is the party on the left with the best performance since its creation in 2014; in 2015, it obtained 7.8 percent of all effective votes, while in 2017 it obtained 20.5 percent of all effective votes. Even if Morena has not been able to win a governorship, it has quickly become the third biggest political party in survey preferences and its leader the front-runner in most presidential election surveys.A lot of this strength as a party has come from the exodus from the PRD. The center-left party that still governs Mexico City has dramatically fallen in the electorate’s preferences from the past presidential race and could now even relinquish its 20 year stronghold on the Mexico City government when the position comes up for election in 2018. The great majority of its victories in this election cycle came in coalition with the center-right PAN, in an alliance criticized by many that think this coalition has no ideological identity and only seeks power for the sake of power, without having a congruent policy plan. The very charismatic and successful candidacy of Juan Zepeda in the State of Mexico gave the PRD a lifeline, allowing it to be in a position to be a pivotal player in next year’s election: one that can fragment the opposition vote favoring the PRI or one that can finally push a left candidate to win the presidency. The PRD’s leadership seems determined to continue its “broad front” alliance with the PAN –although an agreement on a unity candidate seems complicated –that could be a game-changing factor in the presidential race in 2018.
Is Mexican democracy stuck in a trap of pessimism?
Finally, widespread accusations of corruption and vote buying behavior from most political parties –but especially from incumbents in specific electoral races –is eroding Mexicans’ confidence in democracy. In a survey published by Reforma newspaper on June 20, 2017, 69 percent of the people surveyed in the State of Mexico believe elections were fraudulent, 60 percent of people surveyed in Coahuila believe the same, and 43 percent do in Nayarit. 60 percent of the entire sample think the INE is not prepared to properly manage the 2018 presidential elections, and 55 percent believe the institution is not independent of the government. 38 percent of the sample believe that the INE is worse at its tasks than the previous Federal Elections Institute (IFE), 32 percent think it is the same, while only 26 percent believe it has done a better job. If people perceive that elections are not able to bring needed change and accountability even when new parties are elected, that could spell trouble for the consolidation of Mexican democracy. As University of Illinois professor Milan Svolik, wrote in 2013, “Dissatisfaction with the performance of individual politicians in new democracies often turns into disillusionment with democracy as a political system… After a repeatedly disappointing government performance, voters may rationally conclude that ‘all politicians are crooks’ and stop discriminating among them, to which all politicians rationally respond by ‘acting like crooks’ even if most may be willing to perform well in office if given appropriate incentives.” This ‘trap of pessimistic expectations’ –expectation-driven failure of accountability–presents a serious challenge for a democracy as young as the Mexican one. Follow the author on Twitter at: @miguelangeltoro
 Mainly the PRI plus the Green Party (PVEM for its acronym in Spanish) and the New Alliance Party (NA for its acronym in Spanish).  MORENA for its Spanish acronym.  PAN for its Spanish acronym.  Democratic Revolutionary Party.  The only U.S. border state that the PAN has not governed is Coahuila. Currently, they govern Baja California, Chihuahua and Tamaulipas.  Integralia: Reporte Electoral Integralia 2017, Mexico City, June 26th, 2017.  In the latest El Financiero election survey conducted by Alejandro Moreno on Julyl 2017, 26% of the people surveyed said they would vote for the PAN, 24% for the PRI, 23% for Morena and 10% for the PRD. When considering the combination of AMLO for Morena, former first lady Margarita Zavala for the PAN, Secretary of the Interior Miguel Angel Osorio Chong for the PRI and Mexico City mayor Miguel Angel Mancera for the PRD, Morena’s candidate had 30% of the preferences, for 28% for the PAN, 24% for the PRI and 10% for the PRD. Similarly, in a previous survey from Reforma from January 2017, AMLO was the front-runner for the presidential race when comparing it with the most probable candidates (those mentioned above).  Milan Svolik, 2013. Learning to Love Democracy: Electoral Accountability and the Success of Democracy, p. 1.