Last Sunday, Mexico's incumbent National Action Party (PAN) chose its presidential candidate: Josefina Vázquez Mota, who won the party's primary to become the first female presidential candidate from a major political party in Mexican history. But Vázquez Mota's triumph was not a coup just because of her gender. She got the PAN nod (only party members actually vote in Mexican primaries), over President Felipe Calderón's handpicked candidate, Ernesto Cordero. And Vázquez Mota's victory was decisive -- she took 55 percent of the vote to Cordero's 38 percent. Despite their differences, President Calderón, her recent rivals, and the party quickly rallied behind her. 

In the presidential election, which is set for July 1, Vázquez Mota will compete in a three-way race. The current front-runner is the Institutional Revolutionary Party's (PRI) Enrique Peña Nieto, the telegenic former governor of the state of Mexico; he maintains a twenty point lead in national polls. Voters like him because of his good looks, his fairytale family history (his wife died, then he married a soap opera star), and his public works largesse when in office. He also benefits from the partisan support of 19 of Mexico's 32 governors. Not only will those governors endorse him, but they will boost Peña Nieto's campaign with their abundant resources, ensuring widespread local media coverage, packed campaign rallies, and strong get-out-the vote drives. And then there is Televisa, Mexico's largest media company, which has virtually adopted Peña Nieto; their camera crews are always close by and quick to flatter him.

Behind in the polls but still one of the most recognizable names in Mexican politics is Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who will be running as the candidate of the Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD). He lost narrowly -- by roughly 250,000 votes -- to Calderón in 2006, and his supporters flooded the streets of Mexico City for months afterward claiming irregularities and vote-rigging. (After a limited recount, the Federal Electoral Court judged these complaints to be unfounded.) He has been campaigning tirelessly ever since, building a strong grassroots base across the country to get out the vote. And in recent months, he has shifted his message, positioning himself as the Mexican "Lula," a homage to Brazil's much loved centrist former president. He has reached out to the business community and, in speeches, now talks less about fraud and more about "love and peace."  

It is Vázquez Mota's place on the ticket, though, that has the potential to upend Mexican politics. Unlike her two challengers, who are linked to the old guard and old boys' network, as a woman, Vázquez Mota can claim to be the mantle of change. And she can make that claim even against her own party, which has ruled the country for 12 years, a time of mediocre economic growth and increasing drug-related violence. Of course, as the first female candidate, her election would mark a definitive break with the past. But she also brings substantial political experience as a former minister of education and of social development and, most recently, as head of her party in the lower house. She also proved her knack for campaigning in the PAN primary debates where she outshone her competitors with her clarity and charm. 

Meanwhile, front-runner Peña Nieto has tripped over himself on the campaign trail in ways that threaten to undermine his appeal to female voters, which make up more than half of Mexico's electorate. During an interview with the Spanish newspaper El Pais, a journalist asked if he knew, simply, the price of tortillas, a staple in just about any Mexican home. He didn't. And then he went on to explain why: "I'm not the lady of the house." The gaffe did double damage -- it was received as a sign of disrespect to women, and, at the same time, as evidence of his disconnectness from Mexico's working class. He also recently admitted to having two children out of wedlock, with two different women.

Vázquez Mota could capitalize on these gaffes and the suspicions they aroused. So far, she has succeeded with her relatable image. But as the least well-known of the contenders, she will have to make the most of the public debates and platforms, translating greater awareness into enthusiasm to close the 20 point gap she faces.

Now that the primaries have concluded, Mexico will go into a "quiet period" until March 31, when the official race starts. The Mexican campaign law was designed to shorten the horse race, and therefore, keep down the total money spent by candidates. Regardless, through the end of March each of the three will be delicately taking to the airwaves, stopping short of "campaigning" while doing everything else they can to keep their name in the press and their ideas at the forefront of the Mexican political conversation. 

That leaves three months of formal campaigning until the election, most of which will be conventional. There will be at least two debates (mandated by law), plenty of stump speeches, incessant media appearances, and a plethora of television advertisements. But this year looks to be groundbreaking on a new front -- more than any year in the past, the Mexican population is armed with social media tools, such as Twitter and Facebook. Unlike other aspects of campaigning, Mexico's Federal Electoral Institute has left social media entirely unregulated. That provides an unvarnished medium for the candidates and their supporters to put forth policies, or more likely, attacks on rivals. Negative campaigning is officially prohibited in the more monitored mediums. Not so online.

On substance, the two most important issues for Mexico's electorate are the economy and security. Mexico is still recovering from the global financial crisis. In its aftermath, the country's GDP tumbled 6 percent, as manufacturing exports plummeted. An estimated two million people lost their jobs. The Mexican economy has undergone nothing short of a revolution since the start of NAFTA in 1994, going from being relatively closed to highly diversified and service-driven. It is increasingly competitive globally, even vis-à-vis formidable rivals such as China. 

The new economy has also created a new middle class. Earning anywhere from $7,000 to $85,000 per person a year, this center is some 60 million strong, just over a majority of Mexico's population. As homeowners, drivers, vacationers, and avid consumers, these individuals and families now power the market, propelling a real, if fragile, cycle of consumption-led growth. They embody the growing segment of Mexico's electorate - which is now well over one third of the total -- that considers itself independent. If the track record of Mexico's six border states (where the per capita income is higher than the national average and where much of this middle class is based) is any guide, they are indeed that. Over the last twelve years the north has chosen PAN presidents, but mostly PRI governors.

The security issue, meanwhile, is a political powder keg. During the last five years of the Calderón administration, the death toll in the fight against drug cartels has topped 50,000. Although still somewhat concentrated geographically along the border, in the last two years insecurity has spread, engulfing cities such as the popular tourist destination Acapulco and industrial hub Monterrey, and states such as Veracruz and Durango. Mexico's law enforcement and justice system have proved woefully inadequate; in fact, maligned factions of the Mexican security apparatus often end up as part of the problem rather than the solution. With corruption rampant, citizens and officials scared, and almost no investigative and prosecutorial capacity, there are few legal deterrents to crime. Instead, impunity reigns. 

Voters have long felt that the government is losing the battle. They desperately want an end to the violence. But they also overwhelmingly support the government's militarized strategy to fight organized crime. As a result, while all the candidates have talked about lowering violence, only Lopez Obrador has even suggested pulling the military back to the barracks. Vázquez Mota and Peña Nieto -- though still vague -- both suggest they would largely continue Calderón's strategy. They talk about strengthening judicial institutions, professionalizing police forces, and improving education and job prospects for those on the margins.  

Washington is watching closely. Although the United States has always been important to Mexico, today the reverse is equally true. Mexico is the largest source of U.S. immigrants, second largest buyer of U.S. goods, a leading oil provider, and its largest supplier of illegal drugs. Thousands of corporations, millions of individuals and families, and licit and illicit economic markets indelibly bind the neighbors together. U.S.-Mexican relations might not be a regular talking point in either country's presidential campaigns this year, but the relationship will undoubtedly occupy the agenda of whoever the next president is in both countries. And if that happens to be a Vázquez Mota-Obama pairing, then cooperation is set to continue.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now
  • SHANNON K. O’NEIL is Douglas Dillon Fellow for Latin America Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. Her blog, Latin America’s Moment, is on Follow her on Twitter at @latintelligence.
  • More By Shannon K. O’Neil