PAN picks its best candidate, but still faces struggles

By Carlos Ramírez and Allyson Benton

The ruling National Action Party's (PAN) Josefina Vázquez Mota won the internal party presidential primary on 5 February, easily defeating former finance secretary Ernesto Cordero by about 15 percentage points. This is the first time that a mainstream political party in Mexico has selected a female candidate for president. Although surprising for some outside observers, the news was not unexpected for those watching PAN politics over the past year. A variety of opinion polls had consistently shown that Vázquez Mota's service as Secretary of Social Development, Secretary of Education, and most recently as PAN legislator and lower chamber party whip had raised her name recognition and popularity well above the other competitors.

Vázquez Mota's selection will raise hopes among some groups that Mexico will elect its first female president. However, the incumbent PAN faces several challenges from its main rival, the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), and its candidate, the telegenic Enrique Peña Nieto. A recent poll by Consulta Mitofsky reflects the uphill battle she faces: Peña Nieto commands 40 percent support to Vázquez Mota's 24 percent, with the left-leaning Andrés Manuel López Obrador from the Democratic Revolution Party (PRD) only four points behind her; 17 percent of voters expressed no preference and 1 percent supported another small party. Although the PAN will see increased support after having finally named a candidate and the start of formal campaigning at the end of March, the party and its first ever female candidate face three critical challenges.

The PAN has held the presidency since 2000. Any incumbent party, especially a two-term one, needs a highly favorable economic environment to counteract the erosion of support that accompanies voters' increasing familiarity with the government in power. The PAN successfully navigated the 2008-2009 global financial and economic crisis and a deep domestic economic recession, but voters may find it difficult to reward a party that has overseen lackluster average yearly per capita GDP growth of 0.5 percent during the two terms. The modest growth expected over the next few months is unlikely to assuage voter concerns.

The deterioration of Mexico's security environment since President Felipe Calderon took office in December 2006 is another potential liability for the PAN. Mounting drug-trafficking-related violence continues to grab headlines, and there is an overwhelming sense that the country is losing the war against the drug traffickers. As a result, the election will be in good part a referendum on Calderon's security strategy, a pillar of which has been the use of armed forces instead of local law enforcement agencies. Although Calderon retains considerable support on this front, a majority of voters support a change in the security strategy, although they are undecided about what the new approach should be.

The PRI candidate meanwhile benefits from several advantages heading into the race. Peña Nieto has successfully staked out a centrist position that appeals to a broader constituency than just the traditional PRI faithful. The strategy appears to be assuaging voter concerns about the potential return to power of the formerly authoritarian party. The PRI also has a structural political advantage given its control of 20 governorships out of 32. Governors have emerged as powerful political figures in Mexico's evolving political landscape and they can marshal significant state-level resources to assist in campaigns.

Despite these challenges, Vázquez Mota is likely to be a competitive candidate this July. She has strong national-level name recognition and likely counts on solid support from the PAN's traditional constituents in the middle classes and the business community. Additionally, her status as the first female candidate from a mainstream party could help her attract independents (about one-third of the electorate) and first-time voters. Many swing voters might be reluctant to support the PRI -- despite Peña Nieto's best efforts at convincing voters that it has changed -- or the more radical left-leaning López Obrador. Vázquez Mota's likely strategy is to present herself as representing continuity with popular PAN polices, such as its free-market and pro-investment economic policies and its popular healthcare and housing initiatives -- but as also able to critique the current administration on other fronts, such as security policy, where she will offer improvements.

The PRI remains favored to win the race, but Vázquez Mota's selection has probably made it a much closer race than originally anticipated.

Carlos Ramirez and Allyson Benton are analysts in Eurasia Group's Latin America practice.