Mexico's presidential elections

Randal_thRandal Sheppard



This was originally published in The Age Monday 16 July, 2012.  

RECENT protests surrounding Mexico's July 1 presidential elections raise serious questions about media ownership and democracy relevant to developments much closer to home. Coming amid controversies involving the Murdoch media empire in Britain and Gina Rinehart's circling of Fairfax in Australia, events in Mexico highlight the risk to the democratic life of a nation when a few powerful individuals with strong economic interests control important sections of the media.

In Mexico, initial vote counts suggest a clear victory for Enrique Pena Nieto by a margin of roughly 7 per cent, over his nearest rival. Nonetheless, second-placed candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador is calling the elections rigged and for the result to be annulled. Thousands of Mexicans have taken to the streets to protest at what they see as the undemocratic imposition of Mexico's new President.

Having served as an international election observer, I could not say that Mexico's recent elections were either entirely clean or hopelessly corrupt.

But Mexico's elections raise deeper questions about what constitutes a democratic contest. Since May, Mexico has witnessed massive pro-democracy rallies that came to focus on the domination of Mexican television by the Televisa consortium that, along with TV Azteca, controls more than 90 per cent of Mexico's television audience.

While Mexico underwent a series of neoliberal free market economic reforms following its 1982 debt crisis, Televisa's dominance is largely untouched. The power balance has shifted to the point where presidents appear more under the rule of Televisa than vice versa. Outgoing president Felipe Calderon is a free-market advocate who has been prepared to face the high costs of attacking drug cartels. He has not, however, dared attempt liberalising Mexico's television market.

Student protesters alleged that Televisa used this domination of Mexican television to effectively impose Mr Pena Nieto as President through biased coverage. These accusations gathered steam when The Guardian published a series of reports based on the leaked contents of alleged internal Televisa documents. They revealed a concerted Televisa campaign back to the 2006 elections to tarnish combative left-winger Mr Lopez Obrador's public image and build up that of the more pro-business Mr Pena Nieto.

It is in this context that Mr Pena Nieto's clear election victory has been credibly opposed as a perversion of democracy.

Developments in Mexico demonstrate that, once established, the control of media outlets by a few powerful interests is very difficult to eradicate. Democratic political leaders who could break such control ultimately depend on informed citizens voting for them. Despite the rise of the internet, media bosses still have considerable scope to shape what information voters receive. Indeed, inequality between those with access to new media and those reliant on the mainstream media can entrench a form of information inequality that parallels economic inequality.

The pro-democratic narrative of the Arab Spring has received far more attention in the international media than recent Mexican protests. This narrative is a comforting one that invites people in the West to interpret political protest as a reaffirmation of the universality and ultimate superiority of their own political values.

Mexican protesters have raised more difficult questions about the tension that can exist between the free market, a free press and freedom of choice within an ostensibly democratic political system. Such questions deserve serious consideration by Australians as the fate of our own media hangs in the balance.

Randal Sheppard is a research fellow at the Institute of Latin American Studies at La Trobe University.