OPINION

Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador. Photo: Google

By RICARDO CASTILLO

Old habits die hard!

Mexico’s democratic political system is currently undergoing a return to an age-old political habit once known as “la sucesión” (“the succession”), in which one candidate was picked to replace the man in power.

This succession routine became a political mainstay back in the days of one-party rule, and was ruthlessly enforced by the now-waning centralists Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI).

Traditionally, PRI politicians started mentioning potential candidates for the presidential succession about a year before the next presidential election. The question, a valid one at that, was, who was to be appointed as the next president?

It must be clear that succession did not mean election, but the act of the ruling president of choosing the next leader of the nation. Among many other monikers, the act of choice of a candidate for president was known as “el dedazo,” meaning that the president would point his index finger at his successor.

The convoluted process sparked a game of guessing and an avalanche of potential hopefuls known as “los tapados,” or the hooded ones, whose faces were “covered” by a political mask until the final decision was announced. But, of course, those masks were transparent and everyone know who was in play for the big reveal.

As in the Bible, many were called, but few were chosen.

This so-called “democratic” option became a so customary that the ruling president
would appoint the man to succeed him through the mysterious PRI party machinery known as “las fuerzas vivas” (“the living forces”), a group of sheer political power, a legacy of the Mexican Revolution. Within the ruling PRI, the various political organizations would choose their favorite tapado and promote him as the future presidential successor before the almighty PRI political machine.

For all intents and purposes, once a tapado had been elevated to the level of the dedazo recipient, he was considered to be the de facto president-elect, even if he still had to proceed with the farce of staging an electoral campaign across Mexico.

This system worked like a well-greased machine from 1934 through 2000, with the irremediable tapado practice being employed in each election, and with each president appointing his respective successor, hence the procedural tag name of “la sucesión” meaning the election.

But in the 1990s, political opposition pressure took shape in the form of different political parties, with the conservative National Action Party (PAN) gaining ground, and in 1989, Mexico saw the birth of the left-leaning Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD).

These newly fortified parties helped to shape up Mexico’s current electoral system,
which first, have ostensibly prevented elections from being organized by the ruling administration, and second, turned what is now the National Electoral Institute (INE) into an autonomous independent elections organizer.

During four consecutive presidential elections (2000, 2006, 2012 and 2018), the system has worked well. although the INE now faces problems, such as being accused of  running the most expensive elections management program in the world and severe budget cuts imposed by current President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO), who continually takes potshots at the institution and has publicly stated that he wants to see its demise.

Still, within the INE’s short life, it has weathered a barrage of political storms, including the unexpected rise of the leftist National Regeneration Movement (Morena) in the midterm elections of 2015, a movement that went from nothingness to mightiness literally overnight. Today, Morena is the ruling majority party, and, some claim, only replaces the now-nearly-extinct PRI.

If there is one thing that Mexicans have, it is a political memory. During the reign of two political parties — the PAN, from 2000 through 2012, and the return of the PRI from 2012 to 2018 — policies were carried out that moved the nation toward less government and more private-sector investment.

Consequently, the PAN and the PRI, once as different as oil and water, began to merge in mission objectives, to the point that López Obrador began to refer to them as the PRIAN, since they were both in favor of the dismantling the old Mexican Revolution centralist government.

These economic divestment actions — like the divestment of the Federal Electricity Commission (CFE) and the state-run oil company Petróleos Mexicanos (Pemex) through the 2013 Energy Reform) — created many a conflict, particularly in January
2017, when then-President Enrique Peña Nieto, who had promised lower fuel and power pricing, was forced to announce rate hikes that led to massive protests.

These protests came at a time when the PRI was in the process of determining la sucesión. Peña Nieto, true to tradition, appointed in 2018 his wouldbe successor, José Antonio Meade Kuribreña, who lost the election hands down to López Obrador.

Oops, Meade Kuribreña was the wrong tapado.

The results of the 2018 election were twofold: For one, the PRI collapsed once and for all as a political powerhouse, and, for another, Morena rose from rags all the way to full might at the National Palace, all under the guiding hand of a man who had never hidded his intentions of being president, and got there (eventually, after three tries)  through a populist vote.

Almost overnight, Morena became Mexico’s majority party, and, unwittingly, inherited many of the problems left behind by its predecessors. And with “la sucesión” now inevitably coming up in 2024, part of what Morena is dealing with is its perceived “inherited” power to select a candidate.

Given Morena’s still-strong (albeit waning) popularity, whoever is decided on as AMLO’s replacement is likely to win the next Mexican presidency.

Déjà vu, anyone?

For sure, old habits do die hard ,and not only that, they tend to find echo in the present. Hence the entire Mexican political establishment, as inherited from the old PRI, is now getting ready for the succession as López Obrador is clearing the path for the next Morena presidential candidate two years from now.

For better or worse, the old succession process is repeating itself, although with some changes.

For one thing, potential presidential candidates are no longer tapados, but open
hopefuls who want to run for Morena. Some pundits no longer called them tapados, instead referring to them as “corcholatas” (“uncorked bottle caps”), that is presidential hopefuls who make no secret of the desire to be Morena’s nominee.

Currently, there are three potential candidates leading the pack of alleged AMLO favorites: Mexico City Governor Claudia Sheinbaum, Foreign Relations (SRE) Secretary
Marcelo Ebrard (both neck-in-neck, according to a recent La Jornada poll, at about 38 or 39 percent popularity), and Interior Secretary Adrián Augusto López Hernández, who is trailing with 14 percent of the Morena insider tallie,

Still, many claim that López Hernández, who, like AMLO, is a Tabasco native,  is the president’s “fighting cock,” meaning his top choice.

According to López Obrador himself, one of these three will be the chosen one,” decided by internal Morena polls, as AMLO and Morena shy away from direct
primaries.

Does all this sound like the same old refried frijoles from Mexico’s tainted political pastI?

The Morena organizing leaders claim not, but for objective political observers, it sure sounds like echoes of PRI yesteryears.

As for the competing political parties against the uncapped bottle at Morena, none of four major competitors has even uttered a potential name for candidate, never mind a tapado.

What is evident is the fact that the PRI has left a mark in Mexican voters’ political habits, and that archaic, antiquated concepts such as la sucesión and el tapado are still a vibrant part of Mexicans’ presidential elections collective memory.

No question about it, old habits die hard.

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