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Mexico, unified against Trump but divided on its president

The relationship between Mexico and the United States continues to evolve with each aggressive move from the White House, from threats to renegotiate NAFTA to a new executive order aimed at deporting millions of Mexican migrants.

With Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly visiting Mexico City this week, a showdown is almost inevitable. How is the Mexican government positioned to handle the coming leadership test?

Not well, if recent events and public opinion in Mexico are any indicator. While Mexicans share a deep dislike of President Trump, they are not fond of President Enrique Peña Nieto either. His 17% approval ratings are the lowest recorded for a Mexican president.

Mexicans: not quite a united front

Early on in this saga, there was some expectation that president Peña could capitalise on domestic discontent caused by Trump to bolster his negotiating position – play a two-level diplomatic game.

That has quickly dissipated. Peña Nieto faces intense resistance from within, the result of continued violence across the country, alleged corruption, and, most recently, the rise in gas prices. So the question of support for the president in the face of Donald Trump has divided Mexicans.

In mid-February, mass demonstrations across the country sought to show a Mexican united front against Trump’s promises and policies. About 20,000 Mexicans rallied around the flag, but cleavages within event organisers early on showed that they would (mostly) not be rallying around their president.

The Vibra Mexico march in Mexico City. Jose Luis Gonzalez/Reuters

Indeed, the February 13 marches, the largest of which took place in Mexico City, revealed two main factions. México Unido (Mexico United), seemingly a minority, was supportive of the president. Vibra Mexico (Mexico Vibrates) used the public sphere to demand that Peña Nieto enter US negotiations in an accountable and transparent manner.

Those appeals fell short for others, who chanted slogans against the president, some demanding his resignation (“fuera Peña”). At times, these chants were hushed by the demonstrators who had shown up only to protest Trump.

It is a testament to the Mexican president’s low popularity that, for a large portion of the attendants, a march called to reject Trump’s agenda and demand accountability from Peña Nieto would become an outright protest against him.

How not to march

It is also a lesson in how not to wage a successful social movement.

Two factors are important for a protest movement to stand together: a clear but broad framing and a collective identity that makes members feel like part of a larger group. Mexico’s Zapatista movement, which framed indigenous rights as a human rights struggle, is a good example of the former; the feminist movement, which encompasses diverse groups with a common objective, of the latter.

By framing their march as a protest against Trump, the organisers did manage to bring together under one umbrella several groups that agreed on rejecting US discourse and policies. Around 20,000 people attended the march in Mexico City. But because organisers underestimated citizens’ thirst to protest against President Peña, the resulting coalition was smaller than it could have been.

President Peña Nieto and Foreign Minister Luis Videgaray, who will meet with the Trump team this week. Carlos Jasso/Reuters

Indeed, student groups – traditionally associated with the Mexican left – declined the invitation, and political parties were barred from openly attending. Organisers admitted that participants were fewer than expected.

Some commentators also observed that the demonstration had an upper-class pallor. Of course, Mexicans of every social group are entitled to come out to the streets in defence of their interests, but since the people most likely to hurt by Trump’s policies are not the wealthy, the lack of poor and working-class demonstrators indicates a messaging and outreach problem, too.

As a result of these strategic errors, Mexico’s attempt to march together lacked focus. Demonstrators squabbled amongst themselves about which president to protest, and questioned whether some of the organisers – such as the México Unido contingent – had the requisite standing to be there.

Not really a protesting people

Beyond these internal schisms, Mexicans’ desire to powerfully manifest their rejection of Trump’s anti-Mexico policies was inevitably going to bump up against this dilemma: Mexicans don’t really do public protest.

According to the World Values Survey, which compares the attitudes of citizens around the world, almost half of Mexicans surveyed in 2012 had never attended a peaceful demonstration. That’s compared to a quarter of Swedish and Australian citizens, while in Azerbaijan and Egypt, nine of ten people have never protested.

My research shows that Mexicans see demonstrations as less useful than other forms of democratic engagement. In one survey of political behaviour, we found that nearly half (44%) consider meeting with government officials to be the most effective way to influence government, while just one in six (14%) believe that demonstrations are.

So the lacklustre, factious recent demonstrations should not be interpreted to mean that Mexicans don’t see what’s going on around them. Mexicans are not happy with the state of affairs: they feel uncertain, angry and afraid about the relationship with the US, and they believe it will get worse.

This week’s meeting between US and Mexican officials will show how much is at stake for their country. Mexicans will likely rally around their own flag, if not their president, if the confrontations keep coming: 89% of citizens say they’re proud to be Mexican.

With Peña Nieto’s term ending on November of 2018, the question is: who will wave that flag? Thus far Andrés Manuel López Obrador, leader of the left-leaning MORENA opposition party and three-time presidential candidate, is benefitting from the current conflict and seems poised to finally win an election.

But López Obrador is a controversial figure whose past behaviour (including denouncing one electoral defeat as fraud) has invited unflattering comparisons with Trump himself.

The election is almost 18 months away. Judging from the intensity of the Trump administration’s first month in office, any number of surprises can happen between now and then.

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