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The Televisa effect: villains wanted

When #yosoy 132 emerged in Mexico this last May, the headlines and blogs referred to the movement as the Mexican Spring. It united Mexican youth under one clear banner: opposing Enrique Peña Nieto (EPN), the PRI’s presidential candidate. A non-partisan mobilisation like this hadn’t been seen in decades.  And it brought hope, awareness, unity and plenty of jokes and wit to the electoral scene.  #Yosoy132 encouraged everyone to do their bit to ensure clean and truly democratic elections on Sunday 1st July, by voting against the PRI and against the return of the ‘perfect dictatorship’ (in the words of Octavio Paz) endured by Mexico between 1929 and 2000.

From the start, polls showed EPN well ahead of both the left’s coalition candidate Andres Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) as well as the incumbent party’s candidate Josefina Vázquez Mota (JVM). Rumour had it that the polls were biased towards EPN and in June the Guardian and Proceso   revealed that Televisa (the Mexican media giant) had been paid to provide favourable and extensive coverage to EPN since 2005, when he was governor of the State of Mexico. Televisa was also found to have waged a dirty media war against AMLO. Vote-buying disguised as ‘gifts’ and campaign events attended by truckloads of ‘acarreados’ (people brought to events by the party itself), added to the mounting evidence that the ‘new PRI’ was simply up to its old tricks.

But on election day, despite the widely covered dirty tricks, came EPN’s comfortable victory. So what happened? Why did Mexicans, who voted the ‘perfect dictatorship’ out just twelve years ago, simply vote them back in? The answer to these questions is complex, but two sets of issues are key.

A conservative culture?

Mexican society is undoubtedly conservative. Most people are uncomfortable with change; they’ve tried it and can’t quite see the benefits.  Vicente Fox was elected in 2000, not so much because he inspired much confidence, but for the explicit purposes of booting the PRI out of Los Pinos (the presidential mansion). The PAN had its chance, it governed for twelve years, and the vote for EPN on the 1st of July is retribution for not living up to the promises.

This time around, the polls showed that AMLO was EPN’s strongest competitor, so making one’s vote count meant casting it for AMLO. His image, in part a Televisa product, is a mix of populism, intolerance and stubbornness.  On Facebook and Twitter, one camp called for an AMLO vote to keep the PRI at bay; while the other, simply couldn’t get past the ‘Be careful, he’s just like Chavez!’ scare-mongering and so chose EPN. Education, a past experience of PRI, and the danger of real political regression were no match against the fear of the even more radical change that replacing the centre-left EPN with the centre-right AMLO would have represented. After all, the last two PRI-presidents before Fox (in government from 1988 and 2000) weren’t much different to the PAN, whereas AMLO represented a clear left-wing position, both economically and ideologically.

A vote for JVM (who didn’t have a hope in hell), a blank vote or a vote for EPN—all these were the sum total of Mexico’s conservatism.  The sickening political equivalent of better the devil you know.

The Televisa effect

Now running for six years – a telenovela  transmitted live on national and international TV

And what of everyone else? Those who don’t have access to the social media debates, let alone follow them. Theirs was the weight that tipped the balance in favour of EPN.  Steeped in the melodrama of Televisa’s telenovelas (key episodes regularly pull in 10 million viewers in Mexico alone) and the lives of their stars, joyously addicted to the male-leads and the rags to riches story-lines, EPN voters have a lot in common with supporters of Berlusconi.  Both of them the result of what happens when telenovela television replaces information. Televisa’s could be relied upon to bring in the EPN vote – a certainty cemented by the fact that his wife (Angélica Rivera) is better known as ‘Gaviota’ the star of Destilando Amor (Distilling Love) a telenovela in which she plays a simple country girl who goes to the big city for a better life. On July 2nd an expert’s twitter feed revealed that 41% of Mexican women (48% of women with low levels of education) voted for EPN. Rural and poor areas of the country have historically been the strongholds of the PRI, and this election was no exception: 44% of the rural vote went to EPN, along with 48% of the population with basic education or no education at all.

Last weekend’s vote combines escapism, habit and the need to make ends meet.  In Mexico elections are, tragically, also an opportunity for freebies and cash-for-votes that, sadly, really make a difference to a week’s or even a month’s cash flow. The clientelistic PRI knows this well.  And makes the most of it.

The long and the short of it is that Mexico’s telenovela fans have just awarded themselves a six-year-long telenovela to be transmitted live on national and international TV (an interesting comparison here too with the early Sarkozy days in France when the government was accused of making policy along the plot lines of the then very popular French soap Plus belle la vie).

The plot is well trodden ground: a handsome rich guy marries a pretty woman.  They live in a big house and play really powerful roles in society. The show – which comes back on air after a 12 year break – comes to you courtesy of conservative voters.  We’re hoping for a new villain to join the cast this time around: #Yosoy132 could have the part of their lives. Stay tuned for the premiere of this expensive remake December 1st.

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