Mexico’s 2018 presidential campaign already underway

Think the U.S. presidential campaign is long? Look at Mexico. The next presidential election isn’t until 2018, and candidates already are lining up.

President Enrique Peña Nieto isn’t even halfway through his six-year term.

Recent midterm elections displayed the weakness of several major opposition parties and opened the door to independents. As a result, several high-profile politicians have announced that they will seek the presidency in 2018.

Mexicans seem to be heading to a new normal: the permanent campaign.

The wife of former President Felipe Calderon, Margarita Zavala, was first out of the starting gate. She posted a two-minute video June 14 on YouTube saying that she would seek the presidency – with or without the center-right National Action Party, or PAN, that backed her husband in 2006.

Zavala, a lawyer and former legislator, said that among those she would court are “those who no longer believe in the parties as instruments of our democracy.”

Her announcement was the latest salvo in a bruising battle roiling the PAN, which has suffered erosion in support, garnering only 21 percent in the June 7 vote.

“This year was the worst electoral result the PAN has had since the 1991 midterm election,” said Carlos Petersen, a political analyst with the Eurasia Group, a global political risk consultancy.

Party leaders earlier this year denied Zavala a place on the ballot as one of the party’s plank candidates for the lower house of Congress, embittering her and supporters of Calderon’s faction of the party.

Mexico City Mayor Miguel Ángel Mancera also has raised his hand for the 2018 race. Mancera, a silver-haired lawyer, came to office in late 2012, like Peña Nieto. He governs one of the world’s biggest metropolises, a longtime bastion of the center-left Party of the Democratic Revolution, or PRD.

The timing might seem odd, given that the PRD suffered setbacks in the vote earlier this month as well. But in reality, Mancera’s relations with the PRD leadership have been tense.

By declaring early for the presidency, political analyst Carlos Bravo Regidor said, Mancera hopes “people might start speculating about that instead of talking about how poor the results were in the election.”

“Yes, I want to be president,” Mancera said simply in response to a television interviewer’s question. He followed up over several days with affirmations of his potential electability.

In a note to clients, Nomura Securities analyst Benito Berber said the man to watch is two-time leftist presidential candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador, whose new party, known as Morena, rose from scratch to gather a stunning 35 seats in the 500-seat lower house this month.

López Obrador has not openly declared for 2018, but all experts say he expects to make a third consecutive run following failed bids in 2006 and 2012.

López Obrador “will begin campaigning now and his speech will likely start out very radical. But if he gains traction, he will likely moderate his speech and move toward the center of the political spectrum just before the election to maximize his chances of winning,” Berber wrote.

“It’s going to be three years of campaigning,” said Soledad Loaeza, a political scientist at the Colegio de Mexico, a prominent academic institution. “We’ll see who lasts.”

Peña Nieto, seeking to avoid prolonged lame-duck status, since there is no presidential re-election in Mexico, will attempt to keep a lid on presidential ambitions among those in his own Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI.

In the past, the party, which ruled Mexico for an uninterrupted seven decades in the last century, shunned transparency and named its presidential nominee in an unveiling known in Spanish as the “dedazo,” or tap of the finger. The person tapped would inevitably go on to win the presidency.

But conditions have changed. Economic growth is lackluster, and Peña Nieto influences only one wing of the party. Even within his own Cabinet, Finance Secretary Luis Videgaray and Interior Secretary Miguel Ángel Osorio Chong are known to want to succeed him.

“It’s sort of a time bomb,” said Bravo. “Right now, he has enough traction within the party to impose some discipline and make those who have presidential ambitions stay low.”

That influence is likely to suffer at the hands of a political titan who cuts his own course, Manlio Fabio Beltrones, a former legislator and governor of Sonora state. Beltrones carries sway with other ruling party governors and is likely to take the reins of the party later this year as its president. He’s friendly with Peña Nieto but not close.

Peña Nieto will not only have to deal with perceptions of waning political power, Loaeza said, but also with a rival in the party “who’s attaining a lot of power.”

Beltrones, she said, “has got long political fangs.”