The Battle for Democracy in Mexico

Against the Current, No. 117, July/August 2005

Dan La Botz

THE MEXICAN PEOPLE won a battle for democracy this past spring when massive demonstrations — the largest in Mexico’s tumultuous history — prevented President Vicente Fox from making Mexico City Mayor Andrés Manuel López Obrador ineligible to run for president in 2006. The defeat of Fox on this issue was a victory for the Mayor, but above all for the Mexican people, who defended their right to vote for a candidate of their choice in the coming national elections.

Fox and his allies in both his own National Action Party (PAN) and in the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) attempted to keep López Obrador of the left-of-center Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) from running by charging him with a felony. It was a trumped-up charge that arose out of a conflict between the city and a private landowner over an access road. Congress voted to strip López Obrador of his immunity as an elected official so that he could be arrested and jailed. (A person charged with a felony and awaiting trial may not stand for office in Mexico, and it often takes a year or two to get a case before the courts.)

However, after the April 24 demonstration of over 1.2 million in Mexico City, combined with strong criticism in the foreign press and from other governments, and accompanied by worrisome fluctuations in the stock market, Fox backed down.

The demonstration in the Zocalo is the largest and most important mobilization since the late 1980s when Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas ran for president as the candidate of the National Democratic Front, which later became the PRD.

Two days after the demonstration Fox forced his Attorney General Rafael Macedo de la Concha to resign, clearing the way for a political resolution of the crisis. On May 4 the newly appointed Attorney General, Daniel Cabeza de Vaca, dropped all charges. A few days later, on May 9, López Obrador announced that he would resign as mayor on July 31 to run for president in the July 2006 elections. (Mexican law requires candidates to resign any governmental positions they hold in order to run for office.)

López Obrador’s success in this struggle with Fox, the PAN and the PRI represents a victory as much for democracy as for his own candidacy. Many Mexicans, whatever they think of López Obrador, deplored Fox’s attempt to keep the leading candidate of the opposition from running. With this defeat for Fox and victory for López Obrador, Mexico once again seems to be moving forward, attempting to create a democratic society.

The Failure of the Fox Administration

In the 2000 elections, Vicente Fox and the PAN raised the banner of democracy, and millions of Mexicans of all parties voted for him. What a disappointment Fox has been to everyone, supporters and opponents alike!

Since his election Fox has presided over a combination of political paralysis and economic stagnation. He proved unable to get the Mexican Congress to pass his agenda of privatization of energy production and labor law reform, and he has not been able to grow the Mexican economy or create new jobs.

Meanwhile, as Fox led the nation, all three political parties have been involved in corruption scandals, and none have been resolved to the satisfaction of the Mexican public. “Amigos de Fox,” the President’s campaign organization, has been accused of accepting illegal contributions from foreign donors; the PRI was accused of accepting illegal funding from the state oil company, PEMEX; and PRD leaders were videotaped accepting graft from wealthy businessmen.

Under Fox the Mexican government has continued to act as a pawn of the United States, for example, in the recent contest for head of the Organization of American States. The Latin American nations that dominate the OAS rejected the U.S.-backed candidate, Mexican Foreign Minister Luis Ernesto Derbez, choosing José Miguel Insulza instead. This was a humiliating defeat for both Fox and Washington.

Fox and the PAN’s attempt to use legal and political shenanigans to eliminate López Obrador made them look power-hungry and unscrupulous. At the same time, by raising the specter of political and social instability in Mexico, Fox and his allies alienated their U.S. masters, placing terror into the hearts of foreign investors and causing volatility in the Mexican stock market. Immediately following the April 7 announcement that the Congress had stripped López Obrador of immunity, the stock market fell 12%.

On the other hand, López Obrador appeared before the nation to be the hero of popular democracy and thus the potential savior of a democratic Mexico.

A Barrage of Criticism

It was not only the popular demonstrations that defeated Fox. Mexico’s intellectuals, traditionally leftists, came out strongly against Fox and in support of the mayor, and drew intellectuals from other countries into the struggle. At the Voices of the World Festival of the PEN American Center in New York in late April, writers Salman Rushdie, Ryszard Kapuscinski, Laura Restrepo, Breyten Breytenbach, Elena Poniatowska, Paco Ignacio Taibo II, Edward Hirsch, Francine Prose, Oksana Zabuzhko, Paul Chevigny, Bell Chevigny, Luisa Valenzuela, Michael Schuessler, Larry Siems and others signed a statement expressing their concerns about the attempt to eliminate Andrés Manuel López Obrador from the ballot. La Jornada, the left-wing Mexico City daily newspaper published statements from distinguished essayist Carlos Monsiváis and more than a score of other Mexican writers protesting the attack on López Obrador.

The Fox government also came under a barrage of criticism abroad. In late April, State Department officials expressed the U.S. government’s concern that the Mexican Congress’s decision to strip López Obrador of his immunity would cause political instability in Mexico. In an April 7 editorial The New York Times took a highly critical position, writing:

“The Washington Post wrote that López Obrador’s disqualification would be ‘a disaster.’ The Financial Times warned that his elimination from the ballot could provoke a political crisis and undermine economic stability.”

Populist? Radical? Socialist?

While Fox’s popularity declined, López Obrador has built a powerful base of support in Mexico City. Mexico City has a population of 8.6 million while the metropolitan area is more than 17.8 million, the largest urban center in a nation of 105 million people. Half of all Mexicans live in poverty, with 20% living in extreme poverty. As mayor, López Obrador created many popular programs: welfare payments to the elderly, new high schools for the youth, a women’s institute with programs for single women heads of households, and construction projects creating jobs building new freeways.

When Mexico City millionaires’ homes encroached on Chapultepec Park, he sent bulldozers to drive them out. Meanwhile the Mayor continued to live in a modest apartment, to drive a sub-compact car, and to work long hours, beginning at 5:00 a.m., and holding a daily press conference at 6:30 a.m. In a country notorious for political corruption, particularly the embezzlement of public funds, Mexicans took pride in a politician who used government money to help the people, rather than to enrich himself.

At the same time, López Obrador took strong positions on national issues. He opposed Fox’s regressive taxes on drugs and food. He came out against Fox’s plan for the privatization of electric power and petroleum. In a nation with a long history of authoritarianism López Obrador declared himself to be committed to democracy. In a country of tremendous poverty, he adopted as his slogan, “Put the poor first.” On international economic questions, López Obrador argued that Mexico should take advantage of globalization, rather than simply submitting to it. Mexico, he said, should exercise its power to shape global economic developments to serve its national interest.

Mexico, said López Obrador, has the resources to provide security for all Mexicans from the cradle to the grave, and that, he said, was his proposal. The government, an egalitarian and fraternal state, should assure the Constitutional rights to a job, a living wage, health, education, culture, housing and food. “This is what we mean when we talk about a country for all, a country for all the poor, the dispossessed and the humiliated of our country.”

Yet the stock market jitters that accompanied the struggle over his candidacy reflect fear of instability more than worries about the politics of López Obrador. While some of his critics on the right have called him a radical or even a socialist, he seems more like a moderate reformer and a populist.

Certainly López Obrador has not been averse to working with big business. The Mayor brought in Carlos Slim, Mexico’s richest man, to finance the reconstruction of the city’s historic downtown district. Faced with the problem of growing crime in the nation’s capitol, López Obrador brought in New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani to teach Mexico City officials his zero tolerance approach to criminal activity. (Slim picked up Giuliani’s $4.3 million tab.)

López Obrador has also aligned himself with former associates of PRI president Carlos Salinas, such as former Mexico City mayor Manuel Camacho Solis. And the party that López Obrador now effectively leads suffers from a terrible reputation. Critics on the left and the right argue that the PRD has become utterly corrupt.

López Obrador has demonstrated that he intends to use his great popular following as the lever with which to extract concessions from Mexico’s wealthy elite. His program of a “fight against poverty” and a “cradle to grave welfare state” sounds more like a Mexican New Deal than a radical assault on wealth. It certainly represents much less than a socialist demand for the collective ownership of the economy. López Obrador is a fundamentally moderate political figure with a populist discourse. Recent events have transformed him into a leftist caudillo, a charismatic populist with an enormous power of mobilization.

López Obrador remains the leading candidate for president in the national opinion polls, but he heads up a weak party. In the Mexican House of Representatives, the PRI holds 224 seats, the PAN 149, and the PRD only 97; in the Senate, the PRI holds 59 seats, the PAN 47, and the PRD 15. As these figures suggest, with Fox discredited and the PRD so weak, even though López Obrador leads in the polls, it is the PRI that seems best positioned to dominate the 2006 elections.

The Institutional Revolutionary Party, which for 70 years ruled Mexico through a political machine that controlled a one-party state, worked closely with the PAN to eliminate López Obrador. A thoroughly cynical and corrupt party led by malevolent and machiavellian figures like Roberto Madrazo and Elba Esther Gordillo, the PRI joined the PAN in the attack on López Obrador, demonstrating that they continue to be the head-bashing, bone-crushing political party of legend, still fighting to regain political supremacy. The PRI’s vicious tactics will probably not cost it much, as everyone knows what sort of party it is, but it will win the admiration of those macho and conservative forces who long for a return to pan o palo, the carrot and the bludgeon of the authoritarian past.

Under Roberto Madrazo’s leadership, the PRI has succeeded in recouping its power in various regions of the country. The PRI historically ruled through charismatic regional leaders, its caudillos, through local political bosses, the caciques, and when necessary it mobilized the porros, a combination of cheerleaders and goon squads to carry the day. At times it was necessary to turn to its pistoleros, the gun thugs who on occasion eliminated outspoken opponents of the party. The PRI received funding from the PEMEX, the state oil company, and found support in the “official” labor unions and peasant leagues who turned out the so-called accareados, those who had been herded to the polls by their political bosses.

Today the PRI still uses many of those techniques, though it combines them with Madison Avenue mass marketing via television. The PRI, it is alleged and widely believed, receives funding from the drug lords in exchange for turning a blind eye to narcotic trafficking. Over the last five years the PRI has used all of these methods to reconstruct its power in cities and states throughout the country. In all likelihood the PRI will nominate party head Roberto Madrazo to be the presidential candidate, and with the PRI’s powerful machine at his back, Madrazo could well win the presidency.

Even if López Obrador should win the election, he would face a Congress dominated by the PRI and the PAN, making it extremely difficult to advance his own program, or even to defend a set of minimal objectives. Of course, there is always the possibility that López Obrador’s coat tails could help win the election of sufficient new PRD senators and representatives to at least give him some leverage, though that seems quite unlikely. The victory of democracy in the spring of 2005 may only lead to the frustration of democracy in the summer of 2006.

ATC 117, July-August 2005