The decision last week of former First Lady Margarita Zavala to quit the conservative Partido Acción Nacional (PAN) has — understand ably — led to a flurry of speculation over whether she will run in the 1 July 2018 presidential election as an independent candidate. And — equally understandably — if she does, whether the person who stands to benefit most would be the left-wing populist Andrés Manuel López Obrador (aka AMLO) whose party, the Movimiento Regeneración Nacional (MORENA), has led in the majority of opinion polls taken this year, albeit with an average share of the vote of only around 30%.
Why this could be good for AMLO…
On the face of it, Ms Zavala's move could stand to benefit AMLO — and, to judge from his very public glee, he certainly thinks so. Consider:
- A recent opinion poll suggests that around 75% of Mexicans want to see a change of government, ie the ousting of the ruling Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI), whose prospects are greatly hindered by the longstanding unpopularity of the current President, Enrique Peña Nieto;
- The PRI’s low approval rating may account in part at least for why, to date, it has failed to name a presidential candidate (noting that Mexican Presidents are limited to one six-year term so Mr Peña Nieto cannot stand next year);
- Among the established parties, the PAN is probably the best placed to beat AMLO so a significant split in its vote should, in principle, be to his benefit;
- The signs are that, even discounting Ms Zavala, a largish number of candidates will put their hat in the ring, few if any of whom are likely to attract the sort of enthusiasm which AMLO generates among his supporters, suggesting that they will achieve little more than split the anti-AMLO vote to his benefit; and,
- Around 30% of the vote could, therefore, be more than enough given that, under Mexico’s ‘first-past-the-post’ system, ‘all’ the winner requires is a plurality in a single round of voting.
…and why it won’t be
However, the fact is that Ms Zavala would likely struggle even to get the 866,593 signatures required to get on the ballot sheet as an independent given the personal baggage she carries (by association) from her husband Felipe Calderón’s 2006-2012 presidency. So, although her quitting the PAN has garnered some unwelcome headlines for the party, I think her decision will prove to have little if any impact on the election outcome.
Where will moderate voters turn?
None of which is to suggest that AMLO does not pose a real threat. Twice defeated (in 2006 and 2012), 2018 looks to be his best chance of victory to date. Whomever they pick as their candidate from their party ranks, neither the PAN nor the PRI seems likely to garner much enthusiasm among the 37% or so of Mexicans who claim currently to be ‘undecided’, support which they need if AMLO is to be defeated. There does seem, therefore to be an opportunity for a credible independent.
As things stand I see a likely candidate for that mantle who would be much better placed than Ms Zavala to be José Antonio Meade Kuribreña. Despite currently serving in the PRI government as Finance Minister (for the second time), Mr Meade is an independent. A highly respected technocrat with considerable experience in successive (ie PRI and PAN) governments and a reputation for honesty, he is the main (if not sole) reason why the PRI has moved to allow independents to stand for President on the party’s ticket.
Despite some inevitable downside in being associated with the PRI, if he were to be nominated Mr Meade seems to me to be the candidate who could rally moderates and whom AMLO would therefore have most reason to fear in an election where ‘anti-establishment’ sentiment is likely to be a critical factor.
Not Mexico’s ‘Macron moment’ but...
Although investors (out of relief, if nothing else, that AMLO had failed again) and others would likely welcome a Meade victory, we should keep in mind that whoever wins is extremely unlikely to have a majority in the new legislature (both houses of which are also up for election on 1 July). We should not, therefore, expect too much of a President Meade despite his sound qualifications for the job. However, looking today at the likely field of candidates, many both inside and outside Mexico are likely to see him as the best option if he does stand.