MEXICO CITY, Mexico — Candidates have been gunned down, gangster cash alleged in campaigns, governors accused of corruption and a cat, dog and donkey nominated for municipal office.
Mexico's democracy is dancing dirty once again.
On Sunday, voters will elect one governor, 13 state legislatures and hundreds of city councils and mayors. Voters yawn, but politicians have been scratching at one another like bobcats. Economically crucial tax and energy reforms hang in the balance.
“This is a setback in terms of elections,” says political scientist Sergio Aguayo, a longtime democracy activist and sharp critic of the country's modern politics. “It's the Wild West.”
Assassins, some probably linked to the powerful criminal cartels, have attacked local candidates and political operatives in southern Oaxaca as well as the violent northern states of Sinaloa, Chihuahua and Durango. Accusations of gangsters' campaign financing have flourished.
Opposition leaders accuse governors from President Enrique Peña Nieto's Institutional Revolutionary Party, the PRI, of illegal campaign spending and other shenanigans at the state and local level. PRI officials in turn have accused the conservative National Action Party, which lost a dozen-year hold on Mexico's presidency to Peña Nieto last year, of pumping illegal cash into the gubernatorial campaign in Baja California, where it has governed since 1989.
The PRI bosses also allege that National Action's mayoral candidate in the capital of tiny Aguascalientes state has taken money from La Familia Michoacana, a vicious gang known for its retail drug and extortion rackets.
“Before such things were the territory of the PRI,” Aguayo says of vote buying and other sins many Mexicans accuse the president’s party of employing to rule the country for most of the 20th century. “Now everyone is doing it.”
Not surprisingly, disgruntled voters have been turning a deaf ear to the campaigns and seem eager to paint all the political parties with the same damning brush. Citizen groups are running a cat for mayor of one city, a burro in another and a dog in yet a third.
“Tired of rats, let's vote for a cat,” goes one campaign slogan for Morris, the feline phenom contending for mayor in Xalapa, capital of eastern Veracruz state.
Should they judge fraud has deeply stained the vote, National Action's leaders might pull out of the Pact for Mexico, an agreement between the country's three main political parties that's been pushing long postponed reforms through Congress this year. Lawmakers are expected to take up key tax and energy policy overhauls in September.
Proponents say Mexico must overhaul its state-owned petroleum monopoly, Pemex, in order to attract private investment to develop reserves in ultra-deepwater and the shale gas fields near the Texas border. Pemex's shrinking revenues provide more than a third of Mexico's public budget, so lawmakers will first have to find tax revenue elsewhere.
Peña Nieto's own PRI and the left-leaning Democratic Revolution Party blocked similar reform efforts pushed by National Action presidents in the past dozen years. Hopes that they can be passed now have girded foreign and Mexican investors' enthusiasm for Mexico's economic possibilities under the new leader.
"We are very conscious of what's in play," Gustavo Madero, National Action's president, told reporters Monday. "It's the whole future of our country. The entire political climate can get weird, deteriorated and brittle in such a way that it will be very difficult to recover the previous levels of collaboration that we have built.
"The principal responsible party for whether this happens or not is the PRI in the federal and state governments," he said.
Madero already faces serious rebellion within the party over his decision to cooperate with Peña Nieto in the Pact for Mexico. Should National Action candidates lose badly Sunday, especially in Baja California, Madero would be hard pressed to hold on to the party leadership, says John Bailey, professor emeritus at Georgetown University who has followed Mexican politics for 40 years.
“If National Action loses, the infighting is going to get worse,” Bailey said. “It would be really, really difficult for Madero to survive.”
The Pact for Mexico would then collapse, all but certainly scuttling the fiscal and energy reforms.
But other analysts think Madero's fate won't necessarily affect the reforms. They point out that even rivals within his party have offered to cooperate with Peña Nieto on the energy and tax changes he wants.
“Nothing at all should spill over” onto the pact, said Federico Estevez, a Mexico City analyst. With both the pact and reforms secure, Sunday's vote will be most remembered for “narco-violence and vote rigging,” he said.
Indeed, vice, violence and vitriol are hardly new to politics here. Assassins killed a PRI presidential candidate in 1994 and one of its candidates for governor in 2010. Critics accuse former Presidents Carlos Salinas of the PRI and Felipe Calderon of National Action of stealing their respective elections in 1988 and 2006.
Still, the multiplying corruption scandals, many linked to organized crime, have set this year apart.
A former National Action governor of Aguascalientes has been scrambling to avoid arrest on corruption charges. A judge Tuesday ordered the arrest of another ex-governor, Andres Granier of oil-rich Tabasco on the Gulf of Mexico, on separate corruption charges.
Granier is a member of the PRI, as is former Gov. Mario Villanueva of Quintana Roo, the state that includes Cancun, whom a US federal judge last week sentenced to 11 years for drug running linked corruption.
A video that mysteriously surfaced last week accuses Sinaloa Gov. Mario Lopez Valdez, who won office in 2010 on a coalition ticket dominated by National Action, of acting on behalf of most-wanted drug lord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman.
In the video, a bodyguard of the governor who was kidnapped a month ago calmly makes the accusations, while introducing a series of wiretapped conversations that suggest the connivance of Lopez and his top police officials with Guzman.
Lopez, a former PRI politician universally known by the nickname Malova, denies the accusations and says the bodyguard had been tortured into making them.
The governor's political coalition suspended campaigning in parts of Sinaloa following threats against candidates and the assassination of a campaign official in one mountain township.
"I can certainly think that organized crime tries to get involved in the electoral process with actions of this nature," Lopez told reporters.