Mexico’s 2015 Mid-Term Elections

Latin America and the Caribbean

Over the weekend, Mexico held mid-term political elections that will likely be remembered more for the related violence than the candidates’ platforms. There were 2,051 posts up for grabs, including 500 seats in the Chamber of Deputies, Mexico’s lower house of Congress, 9 governorships, 903 municipality posts, and 639 state congressional seats.

At 48 percent, this cycle saw the highest turnout rate in mid-term elections since 1997 despite the voto nulo movement – an attempt to protest against the political system by spoiling the vote – which was supported by only 5 percent of voters.

As expected, President Peña Nieto’s Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) was able to maintain a majority in the lower house of Congress through its coalition with smaller parties. Preliminary results report Peña Nieto’s PRI won the greater portion of seats in the Chamber of Deputies at roughly 30 percent, followed by the right-leaning National Action Party (PAN) at 21 percent and the left-leaning Democratic Revolution Party (PRD) at 11 percent.

The National Regeneration Movement (MORENA), a breakaway group from the PRD, made the largest leap by winning roughly 9 percent of the vote. Despite a slight decrease from the seats it won in the 2012 elections, the PRI is expected to have the largest block of votes in the Chamber of Congress, due to an alliance with the Green Party.

In the lead up to the vote, eight candidates were murdered and 70 violent incidents were reported related to the electoral process. As a result, seven states were on high alert due to security concerns about the ability to cast votes.

The Mexican government mobilized 40,000 security personnel in Oaxaca, Chiapas, Guerrero and Michoacán to guard polling stations and control the situation on Election Day. On Sunday, election authorities reported that 99 percent of polling stations remained opened and not much violence was registered with the exception of a few cases in Oaxaca, Guerrero and Chiapas. 

Mexican analyst Alejandro Hope laid out three potential reasons why this election cycle resulted in more violence than others:

  • Organized crime is becoming more local. Since the fragmentation of large drug trafficking organizations, perpetrators are now more connected to kidnappings and extortions than drug trafficking. New cartels have greater incentives to intervene in local politics and influence private properties and tax rolls, which they then use to generate revenue. Recently, a video of Servando Gomez, former head of the Knights Templar cartel, was released where he discussed his involvement with local Michoacán politicians.
  • Organized crime covers-up political violence. The increasing number of homicides makes it difficult for authorities to identify their cause. It has become ordinary for politicians to relate any homicide with organized crime. Last fall, Braulio Zaragoza, leader of PAN in Guerrero, was murdered at a restaurant during a meeting with other politicians in Acapulco. Initially, authorities assumed that Zaragoza was targeted by local drug cartels. However, last month, Benito Manrique, leader of PAN in Acapulco, was arrested for the crime.
  • Killing candidates does not involve extra risk. The killing of political candidates can derail the electoral process, decrease trust in institutions and lead to voter abstention. These clear risks would likely encourage federal authorities in Mexico to protect candidates and enforce the rule of law. However, only local Mexican security forces are tasked with the responsibility of investigating these homicides and most cases go unresolved.


Going into the election, security and corruption were at the top of the political agenda. In the gubernatorial race, the attention was focused on Nuevo Leon, Guerrero and Michoacán. These three states had the most contested races and have experienced heightened levels of violence recently.

In Nuevo León, independent candidate Jaime Rodriguez, also known as “El Bronco,” won the gubernatorial seat by campaigning as a “rebellious outsider.” Throughout his campaign, he survived two assassination attempts and relied heavily on social media to gain the support of his constituents. Alejandro Hope points out that El Bronco’s win as an independent shows that the party system in Mexico is weakening because the electorate is becoming increasingly fragmented. On Sunday, the PRI, PAN, and PRD barely comprised 60 percent of the vote, a 30 percent decrease from the 90 percent of support they had in 1997.

In Guerrero, PRI’s Héctor Astudillo Flores won the highly contested governor’s seat. For the past few months, Guerrero was under the leadership of an interim governor after PRD’s Angel Aguirre resigned from the position following the disappearance of 43 students in Ayotzinapa last September. Guerrero was the “epicenter of protests against Peña Nieto” this election cycle, and several media outlets expressed concern about the safety of polling stations in the area. On Sunday, protestors burned at least seven ballot boxes and Guerrero experienced some of the highest rates of violence on Election Day.

In Michoacán, PRD’s Silvano Aureoles Conejo is holding a lead over PRI’s Ascensión Orihuela Bárcenas. Michoacán faced similar security issues to Guerrero and operated under an interim governor after PRI’s Fausto Vallejo stepped down, “citing health reasons.” Last month, levels of violence increased after allegations flew that “joint forces” of federal and state police had executed 42 civilians in a three-hour shootout in Tanhuato, which had also left one police officer dead. Due to the killing of civilians, Human Rights Watch has called on the Attorney General’s Office to conduct proper investigations.

Coming off of the PRI's wins, it is expected that Peña Nieto will have an easier time pushing through new policies. In the future, however, Mexico will likely remain under fire in the media for the high levels of insecurity and the government’s seeming inability to improve it. Once Peña Nieto came to office, his administration “slipped into the same policies of President Felipe Calderon.” But, as Alejandro Hope noted, the difference is that Calderon could hide behind the fact that his strategy was to dismantle organized criminal groups.  

Peña Nieto ran on a platform that promised to change this strategy to reduce drug-related violence, boost the economy and reform outdated state institutions. Instead, he has continued to rely on the Mexican military and federal police to target the cartels, without focusing on the issues of governance, corruption and impunity issues on the local level.

Even though homicide rates in Mexico have decreased in past few years, extortions and kidnappings have increased. One of the primary reasons why the homicide rate in Mexico has decreased since Peña Nieto’s administration is because criminal groups have established new balances of power among each other. So now, as Hope noted, Peña Nieto will be judged on murder rates, extortions levels and disappearances as well as the ability to enforce the rule of law in federal and local offices for the remaining three years.

Overall, these elections and their related violence highlighted the dissatisfaction with Peña Nieto’s administration and the Mexicans’ will to push for change. Although there was “no focal point” for protesters in this election cycle, Hope concludes that the success of independent candidates and weakening party structures represent “something resembling an end of an era.”