In Sunday’s congressional and gubernatorial elections in Mexico, the big winner was the formerly ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which with its ally, the Green Party (PVEM) (a rather conservative party not in good standing with the international “Greens” movement) will likely command an absolute majority in the Chamber of Deputies, the lower house of Congress.

The right-wing National Action Party (PAN) of President Felipe Calderon suffered major losses (including, also, several governorships), but a bigger loser was the left-center Revolutionary Democratic Party (PRD).

In response to the results, the President of the PAN, German Martinez, has resigned, and other resignations may follow.

Although not all votes have been officially certified, it appears that in the new lower house of the Congress (Senate elections did not take place this year), the breakdown of party representation (including first past the post seats and proportional representation seats) will be approximately:

PRI – (center-right) 237 (up from 106)
PAN – (right and far right) 143 (down from 206)
PRD– (center-left) 71 (down from 127)
PVEM – (Center-right and allied with the PRI) 21 (up from 17)
PT Workers’ Party – (left) 13 (up from 12)
Convergence Party – (left) 6 (down from 17)
PANAL – (New Alliance, center-right) 9 (same as before).

The reasons for the defeat of President Calderon’s PAN are obvious: Mexico has been hit harder than most countries by the world financial crisis, with massive job losses during the first half of this year. The PAN government’s policies have been militantly pro-business and pro free market, and as Mexicans are aware that their own economy is sinking in tandem with the economy of NAFTA partner USA. At the same time, Calderon’s controversial decision to unleash the military to deal with the drug cartels has not had the hoped for results, and the media are still full of gory pictures of mangled bodies. In that sense, the move away from the PAN is a repudiation of Calderon and his hard-fisted right-wing pro-business policies.

But that being the case, why did the PRI, seemingly so discredited up to now, reap the benefits of public dissatisfaction and not the parties of the left and left center – the PRD, PT and Convergence?

One answer is that at the local level, the PRI still has a well oiled clientage machine to turn out its vote. But this does not explain the PRD’s losses.

The reasons for the losses by the PRD are not to be found in a nonexistent rightward movement of Mexican public opinion, but probably in the left-center party’s messy internal dynamics.

The PRD was founded in 1989 with a combination of the left wing of the PRI, which had revolted against the neo-liberal turn that PRI governments had made since 1982, the Mexican Socialist Party (which incorporated most of the active members of the old historical Mexican Communist Party, dissolved in 1981) and others. It has a social democratic “big tent” nature in which it is impossible to even think of anything like “party discipline”. All sorts of currents and factions have come into existence, but the main ones are a leftward trend led by former Mexico City area governor Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (AMLO) and a social democratic “New Left” trend headed by PRD President Jesus Ortega.

In the 2000 elections, which brought an end to the PRI’s long monopoly on the presidency, the PRD had its own candidate, but several important PRD figures supported the candidate of the extreme right-wing National Action Party (PAN), on the theory that it was more important to break up the PRI’s stranglehold on power than to try to elect a left candidate. So for them, a vote for the PAN was a “useful” vote. This brought to power the PAN president Vicente Fox who was succeeded in 2006 by another PANista, current president Felipe Calderon.

For the past several years, the news in Mexico regarding the activities of the PRD has been mostly about its internal conflicts and problems, which has obscured the party’s program of modest opposition to neo-liberalism. First there was an ugly corruption scandal in 2004, which damaged the party’s prestige. The PRD recuperated from that to the point that in the 2006 elections, PRD candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador may have actually won the presidential election against Calderon (AMLO’s followers charge fraud). Perhaps most damaging of all was a long, drawn out fight over elections to the party’s leadership in 2008, with both sides hurling accusations of electoral irregularities at each other.

This year, right up until a few days before the election, there was another such conflict, about nominations for PRD borough administrator candidates in the important Mexico City district of Iztapalapa. The left wing of the PRD complained that the right-leaning leadership of the party was trying to impose its candidate against the wishes of local party members. AMLO, who is the best known PRD leader in the country, denounced the move and recommended a vote, for complicated tactical reasons, for the candidate of the Labor Party (PT). He was then denounced as a traitor to the party by the PRD leadership, which announced his expulsion. Perhaps as a result of this messy washing of dirty laundry in public, the PRD lost ground even in Mexico City, formerly its main bastion.

Most of the Marxist left stayed aloof from the PRD in the elections, as they have for a number of years. They prefer to emphasize work at the base level with mobilizations of workers, farmers and indigenous people. Some on the Marxist left feel the PRD is hopeless while others suggest alliances with the AMLO-led left wing.

Also, at the last minute, a protest movement arose, pushed largely through the Internet and media, which called for voters to spoil or nullify their ballots as a protest against the entire system and the deficiencies of all the parties. To what extent this contributed to the election results is yet to be determined. More than 5 percent of voters spoiled their ballots, either accidentally or on purpose, but low turnout in certain districts was probably a bigger factor.

The victory of the PRI will probably not mean a sharp turn to the left in things that matter. During the two PAN presidencies since 2000, the PRI delegation in Congress has occasionally opposed the national government’s neo liberal, anti-labor policies, but more often has gone along with them.

The writing is on the wall for the PRD and the left in Mexico to put its house in order or see itself completely marginalized from electoral and legislative activity. Perhaps this will be the shock that does the job.