A ballot (r.) is seen where a voter gave a vote to the unlisted candidate Morris the Cat in Xalapa July 7. Morris the Cat garnered more than 150,000 Facebook followers and captured international attention, with his promoters claiming he drew more support than a small party.

'Morris for mayor'? Cat's popularity speaks to Mexico's democratic woes

Surging violence and reports of voter intimidation in local elections Sunday have dimmed optimism about political openness and reform.

Results from Sunday’s local and legislative elections in 15 states appeared to bolster the prospects for reform of key state sectors. But the process also raised questions about the direction of Mexico's democracy as stories of violence surged along with allegations of vote-buying and voter intimidation – vices that were supposed to be stamped out as the country moved from one-party rule to competitive elections.

The governing Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) won the mayor's office in eight state capitals and most of the legislative races in play, as more than 900 municipalities and 12 state congresses were contested. The opposition National Action Party (PAN) claimed city halls in five state capitals and several border cities, and led the gubernatorial race in Baja California – where it has ruled since 1989 – until an error in the preliminary vote count system forced electoral officials to order a recount.

The mood for many, however, was summed up in the popularity of Morris, a “candigato” ("candidate cat") "running" for mayor of Xalapa in Veracruz state on promises of getting rid of the "rats," as many Mexicans call politicians. Morris garnered more than 150,000 Facebook followers and captured international attention, with his promoters claiming he drew more support than a small party. He embodied evidence of democratic growing pains that were discouraging to some, especially after the optimism of Mexico opening up politically and the PAN unseating the PRI in 2000 after a seven-decade hold on the presidency.

“We were going in the right direction 12 years ago,” says Jeffrey Weldon, head of the political science department at the Autonomous Technological Institute of Mexico in Mexico City. “We’re going in the wrong direction now.... We're seeing a lot more violence.”

Democratically speaking, Mexico is still miles ahead of where it was decades ago, when ballot boxes were stuffed and stories abounded of PRI electoral operators plying poor voters with sandwiches and sodas and then taking them to the polls. Voters now regularly throw out parties governing poorly. President Obama said in a May speech to Mexican students that he saw a “deepening democracy” in their country. President Enrique Peña Nieto wrote Monday on his presidential blog, “Yesterday’s elections confirm the strength and validity of our democracy,” while also acknowledging, “They also leave clear that there are spaces of opportunity for perfecting them.”

Not what it may seem

The reasons for old practices persisting can be counterintuitive.

The nongovernmental group Alianza Cívica, for example, has reported an increase in vote buying in the last two federal elections – something Mr. Weldon attributed in part to an election reform approved in 2007. The reforms outlawed paid political advertising and gave parties free access to the airwaves, leaving them more money for their ground games.

Ironically, increased competition could be fomenting violence, too. More than 20 candidates were kidnapped or killed during the campaign, the Spanish newspaper El País reported, while a 45-member group of provocateurs, which included ex-police, was arrested in Cancún on Sunday. A 17-year-old filming the PRI distributing giveaways was stabbed to death in Veracruz, local media reported.

“There are far fewer single-party dominated municipalities than before, thus exacerbating the competition,” says George Grayson, government professor at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Va. “Violence has become an increasing popular manner to settle disputes.”

Mr. Grayson cites problems with Mexico’s state governors, too. The 31 governors previously served at the pleasure of the president, but now enjoy considerable autonomy and exert influence over local congresses, courts, and electoral institutes. 

Mexico “is backsliding away from democracy because of these governors,” Mr. Grayson argues.

Threatening to withdraw from a key pact

Opposition leaders’ objections to social programs allegedly being used for electoral purposes, as well as their contentions that PRI governors were unduly influencing the recent elections, threatened to undo an agreement between the three big political parties and the president known as the Pacto por México. The parties signed the Pacto to promote reforms in areas such as education, energy, and taxation, but the PAN and left-wing Democratic Revolution Party (PRD) suspended their participation briefly in April until agreements were struck with the federal government to improve election monitoring.

Weldon posits that the opposition parties will use the Pacto to address grievances that have not been addressed to their satisfaction by a tribunal, such as allegations that the PRI overspent in the 2012 vote – charges the party and president deny.

“Opposition parties may feel that they can’t get satisfaction out of the judicial part of the electoral process as much as they used to,” Weldon says. “They may feel that the way to get a better bargain is through the Pacto.”

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