Is Mexico ready for a woman President?

Eric L. Olson and Diana Murray Watts, The Mexico Institute’s Elections Guide, 02/14/2012

The selection of Josefina Vázquez Mota on February 5th as the PAN’s standard bearer for next July’s presidential election has injected a new historical element into the contest. As the first woman presidential candidate from a major political party, many are wondering whether Mexico is ready to elect its first “Presidenta.”

We had the opportunity to put the question to her directly during a forum the Mexico Institute cosponsored with the Inter-American Dialogue on October 21st, 2011 (see her full presentation here.) Her response was unequivocal: “I have the absolute certainty that Mexico is ready for a woman to be President of the Republic.”

While acknowledging that Mexico still has problems of machismo and misogyny, Vázquez Mota emphasized that women’s role in society has been changing and noted the important economic contribution women are making in Mexico as a sign of that change. According to the former cabinet secretary, roughly 7 million of Mexican households are now headed by women. She also pointed to her own candidacy as evidence of change in public attitudes. The PAN is generally considered a right of center party with roots in a socially conservative Catholic church, so one might expect them to be the least likely to choose a women as their candidate.

Overall, women’s participation in Mexican political life has been changing for some time. Since earning the right to vote in 1953, women have experienced varying levels of success in politics. According to the Federal Electoral Institute (IFE) women now represent a slight majority (51.9%) of all registered voters (IFE Statistics, IFE Historical Election Results ). Yet their participation in elected office lags farther behind. Women have fared the worst in local elected offices, having held only six governorships throughout Mexico’s history, and only 4% of mayoral positions as recently as 2009. Women have fared slightly better at the federal level including, most recently, President Calderón’s decision to name three women to cabinet-level positions: Georgina Kessel as secretary of energy; Patricia Espinosa as secretary of foreign relations; and Josefina Vázquez Mota as secretary of education (WPR). In the lower house of the Mexican Congress, nearly one-quarter (124, or 24.8%) of the 500 seats are held by women, and in the Mexican Senate just over 20% (28, or 21.8%) of the seats are held by women (UNDP).

Other indicators of women’s status in Mexican society can be found in educational levels and their participation in the labor force. Roughly 56% of Mexican women have reached secondary education or higher, a rate that trails men by about 6 percentage points. Women’s participation in the labor force is significantly lower, with just 43.2% labor force participation for women, or roughly half of their male counterparts participation at 80.6%. (Source: UNDP Human Development Report 2011 for Mexico).

So Vázquez Mota’s candidacy may appeal to Mexicans generally and women in particular on several fronts – for its historic nature, and amongst women who feel they are at a political and economic disadvantage amongst the lingering machista attitudes in Mexican society.

On the other hand, as Vázquez Mota herself recognized, this election will not be won solely on her gender or appeals to young women: “I would like to say that on the subject of being a woman, I am not running a campaign based on my gender.” Rather, the issues of primary concern to voters in this election have more to do with public security and economic well-being for the country, and quality government services such as healthcare and public education. As such, she will be competing with two other candidates that also have important things to say.

Likely a bigger challenge Vázquez Mota will be her ability to create some separation between herself and the last two PAN governments (which she served), and thus avoid turning her candidacy into a referendum on these two somewhat unpopular administrations. She will need to find an independent voice for her campaign without breaking completely with her party and its base.

This represents an enormous challenge as Vázquez Mota faces off against a young telegenic PRI candidate (Enrique Peña Nieto) that can also appeal to young people and has the benefit of a unified PRI behind him; and an increasingly unified and moderated left in the figure of Andrés Manuel López Obrador.  If the election were held today, Enrique Peña Nieto would most likely win hands down, but much can happen in the next four months and maybe a dynamic and inspiring woman such as Vázquez Mota can turn the polls upside-down. The question remains: Will Mexico follow in the footsteps of Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Nicaragua, Panama and Costa Rica by choosing a woman as its chief executive? Or will the candidate’s gender become less relevant as policy debates and campaigning heat up? That’s what makes this election so interesting to follow.

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