S.O.B.-Gate: The Mexican Vote Scandal That's Helping Its Target

(Bloomberg) -- For a presidential hopeful, to be caught on camera referring to top law-enforcement officials as “sons of bitches” wouldn’t normally be a good look.

But Ricardo Anaya has several defenses. To start with, he wasn’t the one who actually said it, at least according to his team (a member of the candidate’s entourage has owned up). Then, and more fundamentally: Why was Anaya being recorded anyway? Why was the surveillance video released to national TV? And why has his name been dragged into a tenuous money-laundering probe in the first place?

S.O.B.-Gate: The Mexican Vote Scandal That's Helping Its Target

Frame it that way, and the latest scandal to dominate headlines in Mexico’s election campaign looks like something else -- a battle between the governing PRI party, which controls the judicial machinery, and the coalition assembled by the 39-year-old Anaya. The prize: To represent Mexico’s political mainstream in a head-to-head fight at the ballot box in July against the leftist frontrunner, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador.

And it looks like Anaya is winning the playoff. Almost every poll puts him in second place overall -- comfortably clear of the PRI’s Jose Antonio Meade, although well behind Lopez Obrador.

‘Emblematic’ Event

The PRI and Anaya’s PAN are the only two parties to have held the presidency in Mexico’s modern history. But to say that there’s a fundamental policy gap between them would be a stretch. Energy reform, for example, was the signature achievement of the PRI’s latest spell in office – and when the measures opening the industry to foreign investment arrived in Congress, Anaya helped steer them through as speaker of the house.

S.O.B.-Gate: The Mexican Vote Scandal That's Helping Its Target

So Anaya’s campaign has focused on the numerous corruption scandals that have helped make the PRI so unpopular.

And it’s drawn a response in kind -- hence, S.O.B.-gate.

Attorney-General Alberto Elias Beltran, a PRI appointee, says the video shows Anaya refusing an invitation from prosecutors to give testimony about the money-laundering charges, which concern a property sale. The footage had to be released, Beltran says, because the public has the right to know about such an “emblematic’’ event.

On a Crusade

To Anaya, it’s a case of the government spying on its opponents, and a supposedly neutral judiciary breaking all the rules to leak confidential details of a trumped-up case for party-political purposes.

To be sure, if more evidence emerges then the case could still hurt Anaya, who denies any wrongdoing. For now, it’s given him a crusade, and his campaign has been energized.

He’s rallying lawmakers to demand Beltran’s impeachment, and hitting the airwaves every day to defend himself. Some of Mexico’s most prominent writers and artists have weighed in to say that, while they might not vote for Anaya, he’s been unfairly picked-on.

It’s early to gauge the most important response, that of Mexican voters. A couple of major polls have come out since the scandal broke, though much of their fieldwork was done earlier. But on that limited evidence, S.O.B.-gate isn’t helping Meade catch up with Anaya -- if anything it’s having the opposite effect, with the PRI candidate slipping further behind.

‘Anyone-but-Amlo’

Less reassuring for the second-placed Anaya, though, is that the same surveys show a widening gap to Lopez Obrador.

There are plenty of Mexicans who see the leftist as a threat to democracy, or to their wallets -- so Anaya can expect to harvest an “anyone-but-Amlo’’ vote if he can see off Meade.

It may not be enough, and there are signs that the campaign knows it.

At the same time as raging against the PRI’s smear machine, Anaya is pivoting left to counter Lopez Obrador. He’s already scored one coup on that front, by forging an electoral alliance with Mexico’s well-established social democrats. Anaya also says he’ll double the miserly minimum wage, and eventually guarantee a universal basic income for all Mexicans.

Then there’s the youth vote. Shaven-headed, preferring puffy vests to suits, Anaya plays up the age-gap with the 64-year-old frontrunner. Lopez Obrador talks about building new oil refineries; Anaya talks about Tesla. He launched his campaign in front of a giant screen reminiscent of a Ted Talk. He showcased his visit to a cashier-free Amazon Go store, turning it into a call for more innovation.

‘Authoritarian Past’

And Anaya likes to make a fuzzier distinction, between Mexico’s history of paternalistic big-boss leaders (with Lopez Obrador, by implication, the latest in this line) and a looser, less centralized version of government. “We’re proposing change that comes with a modern vision for the future, change that’s open to the world,’’ he told Bloomberg. The other kind of change that’s on offer, he said, “implies a return to an authoritarian past.”

Some observers say that Anaya’s promise of a broad tent is really just putting a gloss on a disorganized and divided campaign. There’s still no chief of operations, and his coalition members have diametrically opposed views on issues from abortion to oil privatization.

And Anaya’s rapid ascent has made him enemies, some of them inside his own party -- like former Presidents Vicente Fox and Felipe Calderon. When Anaya won the nomination, Calderon’s wife Margarita Zavala left the PAN to run for president as an independent.

She could yet prove to be a spoiler, siphoning off some of Anaya’s support. And Meade could stage a comeback. But for now the signs point to a two-horse race, with Anaya as one of the horses -– the one with a lot of catching up to do. To pull it off, he’ll need S.O.B.-gate to turn out well.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.