Late last year, Foreign Policy published an article titled “Corruption is Mexico’s Original Sin.” Though perhaps a tad dramatic, the title contained more than a kernel of truth. Elections in Mexico are not generally something to feel proud about. Nonetheless, they serve as interesting case studies for scholars of political science. A case in point is the most recent spate of Clientelism observed in Mexico State’s gubernatorial elections of 2017. The new practice of distributing debit cards to women during the campaigns ingeniously and perversely solves the ever-present Clientelist problem of credibility. Yet, while marketed as a feminist policy by the party involved, I argue that this practice degrades both democracy and the movement towards gender equality.
For many years, scholars of Clientelism have questioned the effectiveness of the corrupt practice of vote-buying by highlighting the credibility problem – the fact that there is no way to ensure voter compliance with rewards. Yet political parties have invented ways of circumventing this problem by offering rewards conditional on their election. These conditions range from proof of the actual vote to deploying their political machines or party organizations to observe voter behaviour and punish them if they do not show up to vote, all this to ensure their triumph in elections. An embarrassing but effective example of this was seen in the recent state-wide election in Mexico State.
In June 2017, gubernatorial elections were held in the State of Mexico—the most populous state in the country. The Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), represented by Alfredo del Mazo, was declared the winner. For almost 90 years, the State of Mexico has been a favourable electoral battleground for the PRI. Members of del Mazo’s family have been governors of the state for many years, starting with his grandfather Alfredo del Mazo Vélez (1945–1961), followed by his father Alfredo del Mazo González (1981–1986), his cousin Enrique Peña Nieto (2005–2011), who is also the current President of Mexico, and finally to del Mazo himself. Beyond such nepotism, what is truly worrisome is the party’s latest use of Clientelistic practices.
Del Mazo’s latest tactic of “attracting” votes involves offering bimonthly payments according to budget availability—known as “Pink Salaries” or “Salarios Rosas”—to women in the State of Mexico. These payments are issued in the form of a debit card that provides housewives with 1,200 Mexican Pesos (approximately 48 pounds or 65 USD) every two months. At first glance, this may seem like a sound practice that recognizes the enormous, often unrecognized, contributions women make to the economy. But further examination reveals the truth of the matter: that this method of campaigning is simply another tactic of buying votes, albeit one with two additional perverse characteristics (nonetheless, in December 2017, the Mexican Electoral Tribunal (TEPJF) inexplicably declared that these methods do not fall under “vote buying”).
First, the use of Pink Salaries is specifically designed to ensure a vote for the candidate and put enormous pressure on the voter. According to the National Council of Evaluation (Coneval), in 2016, 47.9% of residents in the State of Mexico were living in poverty (with incomes of less than 97 Pounds or 135 USD a month), making citizens of the state prime targets for clientelistic practices. The practice circumvents the usual problem of credibility by only depositing money in the cards after the election. In this way, politicians can be assured that beneficiaries of Pink Salaries are incentivized to vote for them. “If the candidate wins, these cards will be activated. So you have to vote for him […] Please bring me two copies of your electoral identification from both sides and we will register you” said a woman narrating their modus operandi during the elections.
There is no consensus as yet on whether the offer of Pink Salaries was decisive in the election. Nonetheless, a study by Ulises Beltrán and Rodrigo Castro Cornejo (2017) estimates that 4.1% (469,000) of voters received a Pink Salary card, a number approximately equal to 7% of the votes received by del Mazo. Given that del Mazo won the election by a margin of just under 3%, it seems likely that the support of Pink Salary receivers had a significant effect on the election results.
The second characteristic of the Pink Salary is the more worrisome one. PRI has attempted to sell the practice as a “feminist” policy, oriented towards the largest voting population in the state (women comprise 51.6% of the population in the State of Mexico and a similar proportion of voters). Ironically, the need for true feminist policies is very real. In 2017, according to Observatorio Ciudadano en contra de la Violencia de Género, there were 263 female homicides, that is, intentional killings of women, more than in any other state. In addition, political candidates continue to relegate women to lesser roles — referring to the Pink Salary, a spokesman of del Mazo’s campaign said in an interview that “this is for the women that stay in their houses taking care of their children, making food and cleaning […] it has a great meaning for the household and it allows men to go out to work and generate an income for their families.”
While the importance of female work in the household should rightly be acknowledged and accounted for as part of the official statistics, the National Institute of Statistics (INEGI) estimated that the value of domestic labour is approximately 24% of Mexico’s GDP, larger even than economic activities such as manufacturing, trade and real estate. Thus, the road to gender equality must involve public policies that take into account the socioeconomic differences between men and women, the current state of victimization, and the role that both men and women have to play in addressing these issues. Rather than perpetuating the traditional stereotype of women as maternal and reproductive figures, government policies should consider the multi-dimensionality of women’s roles in an effort to foster equality and promote their participation on public spaces.
Clientelistic practices such as those perpetuated by PRI are undisputedly bad for democracy; they distract parties from governing well by focusing their efforts on winning campaigns and not on crafting effective policies, keep voters from using elections as an accountability tool, and, ultimately, pervert and degrade policies that genuinely attempt to eliminate the gap between men and women. Using these policies as electoral tools will only generate inefficiencies and, as in most campaigns, the effectiveness of such tactics will only last for a few elections, as the voters learn that these are empty promises. In fact, del Mazo has already somewhat reneged on his promise – after the election, he stated that the Pink Salary would not be for every woman that had received a card but instead only for women who could provide proof of incomes below the extreme poverty line. Looking ahead to the next Presidential election in July 2018, I hope (though perhaps naively) that it will not be tainted by these practices, and that democracy will eventually triumph over the political machines.
Jesús Silva Vega is a second year Master in Public Administration candidate. Prior to LSE, he worked as a Chief Political Analyst, project coordinator and senior consultant at Integralia Consultores in Mexico City, focusing primarily on public affairs, transparency, Clientelism, and electoral systems. He also has experience in news journalism and private companies. He received a Bachelor of International Relations with studies in economics from Tec de Monterrey (ITESM).