The big news of the week is that Margarita Zavala, the wife of former president Felipe Calderón, has dropped out of the presidential race. Nominally, Zavala was running as an “independent”; in truth, she was anything but. Zavala’s had originally intended to become the PAN nominee for president (some early polls even had her in the lead), attempting to follow the Hillary Clinton model of former-first-lady-becoming-president-in-her-own-right. But after Clinton’s shock loss, Zavala’s star began to fade, almost as if her incipient candidacy had been a victim of collateral damage. And when the uber-Machiavellian Ricardo Anaya maneuvered around her to snatch the PAN’s presidential nomination, Zavala left the PAN to test in her fortunes under Mexico’s new electoral law allowing independent candidacies.
In truth, the Calderón family’s dispute with the PAN goes back to 2010, when Felipe was still president. As La Jornada‘s Julio Hernández explains, Calderón’s attempt to name the president of the party was blocked by a group led by Gustavo Madero (with Ricardo Anaya in the wings), who took the party presidency for himself. Calderón was also unable to impose his favored presidential candidate in 2012, Ernesto Cordero (now president of the Senate), nor even eke out a proportional-representation candidacy for his wife for the House of Deputies in 2015: an astonishing come-down in a country where the president (ostensibly) wields almost regal powers.
Zavala’s candidacy was ill-fated from the start. First and very much foremost, she was hamstrung by her association with her husband’s tenebrous presidency, born from fraud and which foisted on the nation a murderous drug war which left it wounded and ravaged. But she and her family had their own part to play. The company Hildebrando, run by her brother Diego Hildebrando Zavala, received lavish contracts from the Energy Department when Felipe was Secretary of Energy, earning him the title cuñado incómodo (the inconvenient brother-in-law) during the 2006 electoral campaign; Hildebrando was also hired by the then-electoral institute IFE to computerize the institute’s database – an invaluable tool which, in the strange way things seem to happen in Mexico, found its way onto the PAN’s website. The company was also hired to computerize the election results, without even a whiff of concern about the conflict of interest entailed by a candidate’s brother-in-law having access to both the voter rolls and the results. Then, in 2009, a fire at an IMSS day-care center in Hermosillo, Sonora that had been outsourced to a private contractor killed 49 children: one of the owners, Marcia Matilda Altagracia Gómez del Campo Tonella, a cousin of Margarita’s, was (not surprisingly) absolved of all wrongdoing.
That wasn’t all: in order to qualify as an independent candidate, Zavala seemed unable or unwilling to distinguish between real signatures and fake ones, submitting some 219,344 signatures taken from photocopies, 6,714 signatures without a valid document attached to them, and 432 signatures from forged voter ID cards – a criminal offense. As irate citizen after irate citizen fumed on social media, these were practices that would have sent any ordinary citizen to jail – instead, the National Electoral Institute (INE) awarded her with the nation’s first-in-history independent presidential candidacy. Another blatant signature cheater, Jaime Rodríguez Calderón, was awarded the second.
But Zavala was unable to capitalize on the gift from the INE. Her campaign was erratic and unfocused, absent a clear message or anything that would tempt voters to see her as anything other than a prime member of the establishment in a very anti-establishment year. Her debate performance was weak and rambling, leading to the inevitable series of memes and videos making fun of her rather tortured relationship with rhetoric. She will not appear in this Sunday’s second debate in Tijuana, although – in another bizarre twist – her name will appear on the presidential ballots, which have already been printed.
Speculation has been rife in recent days as to whether Zavala will endorse someone – or anyone. Will she kiss and make up with Ricardo Anaya? Will she jump ship and support the PRI’s José Antonio Meade, as former president Vicente Fox has done? What will she demand in exchange for an endorsement? To be frank, the hype strikes me as overblown. Zavala has little in the way of bargaining chips – she was polling in the low single digits, a few points which might be important late in a close election but not with the margins as they now stand. And, of course, there is no guarantee that her supporters would simply fall in line with whomever she happened to choose: one study even suggested that a plurality of Zavala supporters would migrate to AMLO as a second choice. The only hope for the anti-AMLO faction is that Zavala’s harakiri might catch on, leading to other candidates dropping out in order to coalesce around a single candidate to oppose him. At the moment, however, there seems very little chance of that happening.
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