Voter discontent in Mexico is high, and a debate rages over how best to send the political class a message of disgust in Sunday’s midterm elections.
Some academics, artists and protesters urge the nation’s 83.5 million voters to nullify or deface their ballots, even holding up signs along Mexico City’s main boulevard this week calling for such action.
Others exhort voters to take advantage of a newly opened electoral system and shun traditional party politicians, perhaps electing an independent for the first time as governor of one of Mexico’s most prosperous states.
Whatever path they choose, voters – many of them in a foul mood – will replace the 500-seat lower house of Congress, select nine out of the 32 state governorships, and elect legislators and mayors in 16 states.
Once ballots are counted, either late Sunday or early Monday, the midterm election could allow President Enrique Peña Nieto’s ruling party and allied parties to maintain a shaky majority in Congress until his term ends in 2018.
A spike in violence, some by criminal gangs but mostly by angry teachers in the southwestern states of Michoacan, Guerrero, Oaxaca and Chiapas, threatens the vote. Protesters have blocked highways, blockaded gas stations and set fires at election facilities.
At least seven candidates have been gunned down across the nation.
Despite the violence and indications that well-oiled political machinery will keep the status quo, signs are rising that voters are disaffected not just because of a sluggish economy, a drumbeat of corruption scandals and unsettling problems with criminal mayhem. A growing number question the political system itself.
“Mexican elections are an absolute farce,” actress and writer Ofelia Medina said in Spanish in a video posted last month on YouTube. “No party has any ethics at all.”
Medina and scores of other prominent figures have gotten behind the campaign to deface ballots rather than filling them in.
Political analyst Denise Dresser, who supports the campaign, said by casting nullified ballots voters would send a message about “an electoral system that functions very well for the parties but very poorly for the citizenry.”
“Don’t feel bad for nullifying your vote,” said another supporter of the campaign, Sergio Aguayo, a political scientist and human rights activist at the Colegio de Mexico, a prestigious academic center.
A radical leftist politician, Martí Batres, urged voters not to spoil their ballots.
“A null vote is abstentionism. It is not voting for anyone or anything. As its name implies, it is void, nothingness,” he tweeted Wednesday.
The “null vote” campaign has gathered enough steam that it’s been debated at the National Electoral Institute, the agency running the vote. The institute says nullified votes averaged 4.1 percent in midterm elections in 1991, 1997, 2003 and 2009, although in that last election it rose to 5.4 percent.
“There are a lot of citizens, like me, who don’t trust any of the political parties,” José Antonio Crespo, a historian and political analyst at the Center for Research and Teaching of Economics, said on an interview program at the institute.
Crespo said the “null vote” campaign was drawing support.
“For it to really call attention, it would have go past 10 or 11 percent,” Crespo said. “I don’t know if this will happen.”
Reacting to public frustration, lawmakers last year approved a constitutional change that pries open the political system, allowing independent candidates to run for office and permitting limited re-election, starting in 2018.
Sunday marks the first vote with independent candidates on the ballot, and 127 have come forward, mostly for mayoral or state legislative races.
One, Jaime “El Bronco” Rodríguez, is in a close race to become governor of Nuevo Leon, a border state with Texas that has among the highest per capita incomes of all states. A triumph would nurture hopes of other independents, and challenge the grip on power of mainstream parties.
Disenchantment has hit the three largest parties, including Peña Nieto’s ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, the left-of-center Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), and the right-wing National Action Party.
“The government has a very, very poor record in transparency and fighting corruption, and the president himself has been tainted,” said Dwight Dyer, a senior analyst for Mexico and Latin America for Control Risks, a global consultancy.
Dyer referred to a scandal that hit Peña Nieto last November, when investigative reporters revealed that a major government contractor built a mansion for the First Lady and offered her concessional terms for payment. Peña Nieto’s finance secretary also won a sweetheart deal from the contractor.
One perennial politician who hopes to gain from the nation’s discontent is Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who ran for president in 2006 and 2012. López Obrador later formed the radical left party known as Morena, and Sunday’s election will be its first test of strength, particularly in the capital, and set the stage for López Obrador to mount a new populist anti-establishment bid to lead Mexico in 2018.
If his party were to do well, analyst Alberto Ramos of Goldman Sachs wrote this week in a research note to clients, it “could unnerve markets and potentially slowdown investment in key strategic sectors” including in the energy sector since López Obrador opposes outside oil investment.