Next July 2018, Mexico will elect over 3000 public posts all over the country, including a new president, members of the Congress, local officials and several state governors. The result of such election will be determinant in Mexico’s future for years to come as it remains unclear which direction the country will take not only domestically, but also regionally and internationally.
The so-called leftist candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador has been the clear front runner of the contested election for several months. This should not come as a surprise as Mexico’s political environment is facing a perplexed field of presidential candidates: José Antonio Meade, the PRI’s candidate, is a well-seasoned public servant with ample experience in public administration, but a very clumsy campaigner that has the difficult task of defending the dire legacy of the incumbent president, Enrique Peña Nieto; Ricardo Anaya, the third candidate is running on a brittle right-left coalition that has been struggling to find its sense of direction.
If these circumstances were not enough, Mexico is being squeezed at the same time by Trump’s United States, and more recently by Putin’s Russia; each pursuing a completely divergent agenda, yet, ironically, contributing to the very same electoral result: The rise of Obrador. Over the last few days, there have been increasing rumours about a possible Russian interference in Mexican elections. So far, any predictions of such involvement remain speculative, yet they are not irrational. Due to its proximity, there is no other country in the world that influences the US as much as Mexico. Both nations are deeply interwoven, and they depend on one another to strengthen security, trade, investment, as well as improve the lives of their citizens in who are residents in either country. They are the homes of the largest US and Mexican diasporas. It is estimated that approximately 37 million Mexicans reside in the US, and over one million Americans live in Mexico.
Hence, for both countries the current high stakes make the prospect of any potential Russian meddling even more substantial. Mexico’s fragile democracy faces a variety of threats before this year’s elections, therefore, it must take every measure available to avoid being the next Guinea pig in Putin’s geopolitical experiment. Russia’s interference in world politics should not be easily dismissed. American intelligence and security agencies have confirmed there was indeed some sort of interference with the 2016 American election; there is also substantial evidence that Russia sought to influence elections held in France, Germany, the Netherlands; and there are growing fears that Russia will try to influence Italy’s May general election.
If Russia truly seeks to damage the US, Mexico’s 2018 elections offer a rewarding and vulnerable target. Social media and the Internet remain for many Mexicans as their main source of information. Mexico, unlike the US and most western countries, does not have a specialised agency to expose any fake news neither its electoral institutions have the expertise to address weaknesses and controversies. A few days ago, Obrador discredited accusations directed at his possible links with Russia as fabricated and aimed at ruining his lead in the electoral positions. He was seen joking about this issue. However, Obrador needs to get serious and address any potential conflict of interest that may arise within his team before shrugging off any suspicions.
A few weeks ago, when he announced his would-be cabinet should he become the next president, a name popped out: Irma Eréndira Sandoval. She would be the one in charge of leading the fight against corruption within bureaucracy. Irma, however, has too much baggage for such a position. Her partner is John Ackerman, who has ben given considerable amount of air time on RT, the Kremlin´s unofficial television network. They have gone as far as describing him as “our man in Mexico.” Ackerman is a trusted contributor to such network. Consequently, the potential to influence and destabilise Mexico’s presidential elections, as well as the potential conflict of interest within Obrador’s inner circle is not a laughing matter.
Judging by Putin’s record, one could surmise where Mexico’s elections could fit in the Russian puzzle. Putin has largely sought to discredit democracy and weaken the west along with it. The twin goals bolster the Kremlin’s global power as well as strengthen Putin’s standing back home: the more disillusioned people living in democracies are, the less ordinary Russians will demand democratisation of their government. Disinformation campaigns are also most effective when they prey on deep-seated beliefs and latent conflicts, such is the case of Mexico. A Russian misinformation campaign can easily exaggerate and amplify hard feelings. Mexico needs to safeguard its electoral process from tampering their choice. Mexicans should be given the freedom to choose the candidate they want; their choice next July should be theirs and none else’s. Mexicans do not need Russian social media telling them that their politicians are prone to corruption and their democracy is flawed. The country has vast experience in that field. In an election that could be won by a wafer-thin victory, similarly to what happened in the US, a little push from Russians intensifying the message on social media could end up making a decisive difference.