by Caroline Howard on Forbes
“I am going to be the first woman president in [Mexican] history,” Josefina Vázquez Mota announced last night upon winning the presidential nomination of the ruling National Action Party (PAN). Notably, (1) she is the first woman candidate to run on a major political party in Mexico; and (2) in her speech, she used the female form of the word:presidenta.
Vázquez Mota, 51, is up against Enrique Peña Nieto, 45, from the centrist Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), and Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, 59, of the leftist Democratic Revolutionary Party. With her on the ticket, there’s new momentum in the race, which will be held on July 1.
Does she have a chance? The most compelling reason Vázquez Mota may win is also the most obvious. “She has a chance precisely because she is a woman,” saysShannon K. O’Neil, director of the Center for Foreign Relations-sponsored Independent Task Force on U.S. Policy Toward Latin America.
There is more to Vázquez Mota’s appeal and abilities, for sure, than her gender. She served as Secretary of Social Development under President Vicente Fox and Secretary of Public Education under President Felipe Calderon Hinojosa. Elected in 2009 to the Mexican legislature, she began pursuing the nomination last year. She is also a trained economist and former journalist.
But even with her robust resume, Vázquez Mota and PAN are acutely aware of what may be her strongest card among two key demographics: independents and women. Party loyalty still matters, of course, but “the growing autonomous center” could be a huge swing vote, says O’Neil. “Josefina, by her very gender, has a leg up within that demographic.”
“Women will be important given they are just over half the population,” adds Christina Ewig, Ph.D., an associate professor of Gender & Women’s Studies and Political Science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “Women in Mexico have historically tended to support the PRI, but in recent elections some women have shifted to the PAN. Getting more women to shift to the PAN may be part of the strategy of nominating Vásquez Mota.”
Another twist: Back in December Vázquez Mota’s main rival, Peña Nieto, landed in hot water for not knowing the price of a kilo of tortillas, saying: “I’m not the lady of the house. I don’t know those things.” (A far cry from Margaret Thatcher, who made a particular point of always knowing the price of milk.) Not to mention Peña Nieto’s messy love life (affairs, children born out of wedlock) may offend the electorate.
Where that leaves Vázquez Mota may be alongside her regionalcompatriotas:
- Dilma Rousseff, inaugurated as president of Brazil in 2011
- Laura Chinchilla, elected as president of Costa Rica in 2010
- Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, president of Argentina since 2007
- Michelle Bachelet, president of Chile from 2006 to 2010
- Mireya Moscoso, Panamanian president from 1999 to 2004
- Violeta Chamorro, president of Nicaragua in 1990s
- Isabel Perón, who ran Argentina from 1974 to 1976
Unlike the latter three, though, Vázquez Mota was nominated not as a wife/daughter but on her own merits and record. Ewig calls her “a candidate with substantial political experience” of a kind with Rousseff, who leads the world’s sixth largest economy, and Fernandez de Kirchner, running Argentina’s boom.
Then there is pervasive regional issue of corruption. “When women run for president, and even if they don’t win, there is a perception they are less corrupt,” says O’Neil. “The silver lining of being a female candidate is you are given this mantle of being more transparent.” Rousseff, in particular, owes her high-wattage approval ratings after her first year in office largely to her clean-up government platform and sound economic management.
That the choice of Mexico’s new president might hinge on the perception of Vázquez Mota doing the same has as much or more to do with the region and the times than gender. Mexican Attorney General Marisela Morales (one of FORBES 2011 Power Women To Watch) announced that over the past five years, nearly 48,000 people have been killed in suspected drug-related violence, mostly in the north. And there’s barely a voting person in Mexico who doesn’t think the economy is the most acute issue facing the country.
“She is behind in the polls now, but polls are meaningless until there is an actual candidate running,” says Ewig. “Given some time to campaign, she may very well have a chance.”
All of which is to say that Vázquez Mota has more than a chance. She’s already changed the momentum of the race and has a clear shot at adding to the number of women we call Madame President.