Electoral Violence in Mexico: It’s the Institutions, Stupid
Last weekend, Mexicans went to the polls nationwide to elect local and state representatives. The elections were the first to be held since December when Enrique Peña Nieto won a hotly contested presidential contest that restored power to his Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) — which once ruled Mexico with an authoritarian grip — after more than a decade of conservative rule by the National Action Party (PAN). Peña Nieto vowed upon assuming office to focus government action on the reduction of crime and corruption and move away from the disastrous war on drugs prosecuted by his predecessor, Felipe Calderón. Last week’s vote was seen by many as an early referendum on these promises. Unfortunately, the process was far from peaceful.
The period leading up to the election was marred by startling violence. At least six candidates standing for local posts were assassinated while another managed to escape an attempt on her life. Politicians weren’t the only victims. The New York Times reported that “Party and campaign officials have also been assaulted, their family members targeted and sometimes killed as well.” In all, the election proved to be the most violent in recent history, sparking fears that Mexico’s democracy was under serious threat. As one Mexican political analyst noted, “A state that cannot protect its candidates is a state that cannot protect democracy.”
The urge to use body counts as a signifier of democratic state weakness, however, should be resisted. While it may seem counterintuitive, the prevalence of violence tells us little about the institutional health of modern Mexico. Rather, it provides insight into the nature — not strength — of the democratic institutions that have emerged in Mexico in the years since authoritarian rule.