Mexico's old ruling party falls short of majority

July 10, 2012 - 4:38 PM
Mexico Elections

Mexicans unhappy with the presidential election results gather around the Angel of Independence monument, in Mexico City, Saturday, July 7, 2012. The protestors marched in rejection of the final count in the presidential election showing former ruling party candidate Enrique Pena Nieto as the victor. They believe the PRI engaged in vote-buying that illegally tilted millions of votes. PRI officials deny the charge. The banner the woman is holding reads in Spanish; "You can buy a woman, but Mexico is not for sale." (AP Photo/Marco Ugarte)

MEXICO CITY (AP) — Mexico's old ruling party and its allies appear to have fallen just short of a majority in both houses of Congress, electoral authorities said Tuesday, giving smaller parties the potential of leveraging their swing votes and increasing the likelihood that parties will try to poach congressmen from rivals.

The Institutional Revolutionary Party, which held Mexico's presidency for 71 years, has been declared the winner of the July 1 presidential elections, marking its first return to the presidency since 2000.

Known as the PRI, it is allied with the smaller Green Party, and together they won 240 seats in the 500-seat lower house of Congress. The PRI has had an on-again, off-again partnership with the New Alliance party, controlled by the head of Mexico's largest teachers' union, which won an additional 10 seats in the lower house.

Together, the three parties would have exactly half of the lower house, but all 500 legislators are almost never present for any session.

The Federal Electoral Institute also projected Tuesday that the PRI and Green parties will have 61 seats in the 128-seat senate, and the New Alliance will have one. If they vote together, that would collectively give the three parties 62 Senate seats, three short of a majority.

The figures are projections. Because some seats are directly elected and some are assigned proportionally based on a complex formula that takes into account each party's share of the vote, the final totals will be announced by a federal electoral court in a few weeks.

The winner of the July 1 elections, PRI candidate Enrique Pena Nieto, appeared to recognize the need to reach out across party lines, saying Tuesday he will start seeking a consensus with other parties even before he takes office on Dec. 1, starting with issues everyone agrees on.

"Let's gain some time precisely by talking about common-ground issues, issues that all the parties propose," he said. Pena Nieto did not say which issues would enjoy such broad support. Almost every theme on the legislative agenda, including tax and political reforms, increased private sector involvement in the energy sector, and anti-crime strategies, are the subject of heated debate.

"What we need now is an attitude that is positive, constructive, full of proposals," Pena Nieto said, in an apparent reference to the tendency of opposition parties, including the PRI itself, to simply block presidential proposals.

Jose Antonio Crespo, an analyst at the Center for Economic Studies, noted that the PRI "cannot impose things, it has to negotiate them with the other large parties. There is no other choice."

President Felipe Calderon's conservative National Action Party, while it came in third in the presidential vote, will have 114 seats in the lower house, and the leftist Democratic Revolution Party will have 101. However, Democratic Revolution has two closely allied smaller parties whose combined vote will effectively push the left into second place in Congress with about 136 seats.

It remains to be seen whether the left will disrupt or blockade votes on hot-button issues like Pena Nieto's proposals to allow greater private investment in the state-owned oil company, Pemex, as it has done in the past.

And Crespo noted it was also unclear whether Pena Nieto, who has not served in Congress, would be able to effectively control his large and, in the past, unruly legislative block. Before the party lost its congressional majority in 1997, PRI legislators often jeered, cat-called, napped or chatted through sessions.

Political analyst Maria Amparo Casar wrote in the newspaper Reforma that "now, the opposition will have to be taken into account in the budget talks, legal reforms, and several appointments that require a majority vote" in Congress for approval. "That is not a bad thing," she noted.

While Calderon's National Action has long been a proponent of some kinds of tax and energy-sector reforms, and could serve as a natural ally for Pena Nieto on those issues, such a temporary, one-issue alliance could be fragile.

"We have already seen this kind of rupture. It could happen again," Crespo said.

Rene Torres Ruiz, a political science professor at the IberoAmerican University, says Congress now faces much more outside pressure and scrutiny than it did in the old days, when the PRI could use its own majority to muster bills through during a midnight session.

"The political landscape in Mexico is not the same in 2012 as it was in 2000, and much less the 1970s or '80s, when political plurality was more limited," Torres Ruiz said. "There are citizen groups, voices from some sectors of society that can exert pressure on congress."

"There is going to be a temptation to turn backward, we're going to see that with the PRI in power ... but I repeat, the political landscape has changed, from when the PRI was the dominant power," he noted.