If ever there were an election preordained as a result of economic performance, it would be Mexico’s election on Sunday. The ruling National Action Party, or PAN, was destined to lose because it had presided over profound economic failure for 11 years. Almost any government in world would have lost under such circumstances.
Commentators, focused on the six-year-old drug war, have largely neglected to note the depth of Mexico’s economic problems. Let’s start with the basics: Since 2000, when the PAN was first elected, income per person in Mexico has grown by just 0.9 percent annually. This is terrible for a developing country, and less than half the rate of growth of the Latin American region during this period — which was itself not stellar. If we just look at per capita growth since the last election, in 2006, Mexico finishes dead last of all the countries in Latin America.
Between 1980 and 2000, when the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, lost control of Mexico for the first time in more than 70 years, the country saw a precipitous drop in economic growth. Before the 1980s, Mexico was growing at a rate that would have lifted the country to European living standards, had it continued.
It is not fashionable among observers, in the United States or Mexico, to mention that Mexico’s economy has performed abysmally for more than 30 years. Starting with the recession and Latin American debt crisis in the early 1980s, the PRI shifted toward what economists call “neoliberalism”: abandoning state-led industrial and development policies, tightening monetary and fiscal policies and liberalizing foreign investment and trade. The North American Free Trade Agreement, which took effect in 1994, was only the most visible example of this transformation.
Of course, not all of these policies were mistaken, but the overall result was an unqualified failure. The same thing happened across Latin America from 1980 to 2000, where gross domestic product, per capita, grew by 6 percent, as compared with 92 percent over the prior two decades.
The vast majority of the region responded to the long-term economic failure of the 1980s and 1990s — the worst such performance in more than a century — by electing left-wing governments: Argentina, Brazil, Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador, Paraguay, Uruguay, Nicaragua, El Salvador and others. These candidates and parties ran explicitly against what they called “neoliberalism.” Why then did Mexico move to the right?
Part of the answer may be found in Mexico’s electoral institutions, and especially the ownership of the news media. In 1988, the PRI candidate, Carlos Salinas, was declared the winner over a leftist candidate, Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas, only because of widespread electoral fraud. The 2006 election was too close to call: the PAN candidate, Felipe Calderón, who is now finishing his six-year term as president, was declared the winner by a razor-thin margin, and only after a partial recount, the results of which were never released to the public.
More important, the media, which are essentially owned by a monopoly, were found to have played a significant role in the 2006 elections, more than enough to prevent the most left-wing candidate, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who ran again this year, from winning. With 95 percent of TV broadcasts controlled by just two media outlets with a strong and documented bias against Mr. Obrador’s party, the Party of the Democratic Revolution, a true left-of-center candidate has little chance.
More than half of all Mexicans are living below the official poverty line, and the new government does not look like it has much to offer the country’s poor majority. Sadly, Mexico’s economic progress will probably remain very halting until there is a more level playing field for elections.
Mark Weisbrot is co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research.