In an election with high turnout (219.000 voters, 72% of affiliates) militants of the Mexico’s main right-wing party, the Partido de Acción Nacional (PAN), re-elected Gustavo Madero as their president for four more years. The winner obtained 57% of votes; the remaining 43% went to Ernesto Cordero, former minister during the presidency of Felipe Calderón (2006-2012). This result closes an unusually confrontational primary, during which debates focused on the strategy of pacts with the current government of the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI), presided by Enrique Peña Nieto,.
By choosing the main architect and protagonist of such strategy, panistas ratified an approach that has provided the government with the legislative coalitions that made possible the most important wave of reformist legislation produced by the Mexican political system in decades, affecting areas as critical as telecommunications and energy. Such an approach had been severely criticized by the faction led by Cordero, supportive of a strategy based on the vindication of the legacy of the Calderón administration and a radical opposition to the current government in retaliation for the persistent legislative obstruction presented to the previous one by the PRI.
“Something is wrong when relationships with another party are the main topic of internal debate,” an analyst commenting on the situation of the PAN recently wrote. At least temporarily, the primary somehow closes a crisis of identity from which the PAN had suffered as a combined effect of the disappointing results of the Calderón administration and the PRI’s return to power. With a strong conservative Catholic identity and an electoral core based on important factions of entrepreneurial and middle classes, the expansion of the PAN that ended seven decades of PRI hegemony and led Vicente Fox to the presidency in 2000 with 42.5% of the vote had been mainly built upon demands of transparency and honest administration. That having been the case, the electoral debacle represented by the 25% of the vote obtained in the last (2012) presidential election, after two consecutive victories, is hardly surprising. To the toll that 12 years in government should be expected to exact on any party, the last sexenio added the multiple criticisms raised by the means chosen by Calderón to fight narcotraffic, as well as corruption scandals involving important members of his governmental team.
On the other hand, the early years of the current administration have provided a mirror that returns a particularly poor image of the previous one in terms of efficacy. Peña Nieto began his sexenio with the presentation of the Pacto por México, a multi-partisan agreement around an agenda of 95 initiatives. The new president’s ability to obtain support from the main opposition forces both on the right –the PAN- and on the left –the Partido de la Revolución Democrática (PRD)- was perceived by public opinion as markedly contrasting Calderón’s incapacity to overcome legislative gridlock. In spite of its current impasse, that many observers estimate terminal, the Pacto lived long enough to deliver a series of long-postponed reforms –education, banking, energy, and telecommunications. The embarrassment of Calderonistas was accentuated by some recent accomplishments in the fight against narcos. To the incarceration of Joaquín El Chapo Guzmán, leader of the powerful cartel of Sinaloa who had been successfully avoiding capture for 13 years, the PRI government added the death, while resisting arrest, of Nazario El Chayo Moreno, head of the Caballeros Templarios (the organization controlling drug traffic in the Michoacan area), who had been reported dead by the government in 2010. To make matters worse, recent investigations of irregular contracts with the government that benefitted Oceanografía, a services company, point at several top members of the governmental teams of both PAN administrations.
In such unfavorable circumstances, Madero’s switch towards dialogue and shared responsibility for the direction of government offered the PAN the alternative of a fresh start based on a clear detachment from the legacy of its last period in the presidency. This 58 years-old entrepreneur from the state of Chihuahua carries an illustrious political pedigree –Francisco Madero, his grand-uncle, was the challenger of Porfirio Díaz in the 1910 election that ended constituting the opening act of the Mexican Revolution. His political career had a late start, which makes its accelerated progress particularly impressive. He initiated it by accessing Congress as a representative of his native state in 2003; three years later he entered the Senate, where by 2008 he was the leader of the PAN representation. When in 2010 he competed for the presidency of the party, an important faction of panistas saw him as offering an alternative to what they resented as excessive presidential interference with the party’s internal life – Calderón had been able to impose the last two presidents of PAN. After a catastrophic performance in the 2012 presidential election made his party the third electoral force of the country, he introduced a drastic strategic switch by initiating negotiations with representatives of Peña Nieto’s closest circle of collaborators around the policy priorities of the incoming administration.
The switch has not been merely strategic, but to some extent ideological, since the sector under Madero’s leadership has also tried to distance itself from the radical economic liberalism of its opponents inside the party, by means of an identification with a Chilean-type version of Christian democracy. However, there are also more prosaic motives behind the polarization that has recently characterized cohabitation of PAN’s two wings. Cordero’s followers do not forget the removal of their leader from his position as leader of the party’s legislative bloc in the Senate, a decision for which Madero was directly responsible, moved by Cordero’s attempt to promote, in agreement with PRD legislators, an electoral reform alternative to the one negotiated by the party’s president as part of the Pacto por México.
Although Madero’s mind seems to be ultimately set on the 2018 presidential election, the first acid test for his strategy will arrive with the 2015 midterm legislative election.