Dual Power or Populist Theater? Mexico’s Two Governments

Dan La Botz

THE MEXICAN ELECTORAL Tribunal recognized Felipe Calderón as president-elect, while a massive National Democratic Convention has proclaimed Andrés Manuel López Obrador to be the “legitimate president of Mexico.”He is now creating an alternative government, and says he will call a constituent assembly that will write a new constitution. What is happening here? Is this a radical fight for reforms? A potentially revolutionary movement? Or a spectacular piece of populist theater?

MORE THAN A million people gathered on September 16, Independence Day, on Mexico City’s national Plaza of the Constitution and the surrounding streets for blocks around and — after enduring a drenching cloud burst — proclaimed Andrés Manuel López Obrador as the legitimate president of Mexico.(1) The massive National Democratic Convention (CND) repudiated the “usurper” Felipe Calderón and called for the end of the existing Mexican government, for the “abolition of the regime of privileges.”

The CND also called for the organization of a campaign of national civil disobedience with one of its objectives being to prevent Calderón from taking the oath of office. López Obrador has once again demonstrated that he is a brilliant populist politician with a remarkable ability to mobilize the masses and to maintain the posture of defiance toward the government while avoiding the danger of direct confrontation.

In calling the Convention, López Obrador stated that he was operating in the great Mexican revolutionary tradition beginning with Miguel Hidalgo y Castillo and José María Morelos in the Independence struggle of 1810-1825, through Benito Juárez, leader of the Liberals in the Reform Movement and the war against France in the 1850s and ’60s, Francisco Madero and Emiliano Zapata in the Mexican Revolution of 1910-1940. Yet while claiming the revolutionary inheritance, and adopting a revolutionary rhetoric, López Obrador and his Party of the Democratic Revolution seem loath to give up the foothold they have in the old order.

Even in proclaiming a position tantamount to revolution, López Obrador and the PRD have continued to work within the existing power structure. The National Democratic Convention authorized that the parties which made up López Obrador’s For the Good of All Coalition, the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), the Workers Party (PT), and Convergence, should reorganize to create the Broad Progressive Front (FAP) which will work as a bloc in the newly elected Mexican parliament(2) — that is, in the parliament of the actually existing Mexican government.

The PRD’s legislative coordinator Javier González Garza met with coordinators of the conservative National Action Party (PAN) and the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) to create a more efficient and dynamic congress, one that would, according to the PRD’s González, end log-jam in the lower house.(3) The PRD has also agreed to serve with the PAN and the PRI in the collective leadership of the legislature with Ruth Zavaleta Salgado as vice-president.(4)

PRD governors in Baja California Sur, Guerrero, Michoacán, and Zacatecas will also take power within the existing governmental structure. PRD governors have just participated in the National Governors Congress (Conago) with PAN and PRI governors. So, apparently, while repudiating the old regime, the PRD will also continue to work and to serve in leadership positions in it.

Just what is happening here? Are we witnessing the emergence of a revolutionary alternative? Or is this an extraordinary and spectacular populist theater intended to project López Obrador into power in the next election? Some have referred to this as “dual power,” but where is López Obrador’s power? Where is the peoples’ power?

From the Election to the CND

The current situation results from the irregularities, challenges and disappointments with the Mexican election of July. The Mexican Electoral Tribunal had earlier rejected López Obrador’s call for a vote-by-vote, polling-place-by-polling-place recount of the election. And while the court recognized that Mexico’s President Vicente Fox had violated election law by intervening in the election campaign and that Mexican corporations had violated the law by paying last-minute advertising attacking López Obrador, they would not on that basis overturn the election results as they might have done.

The National Association of Democratic Attorneys (ANAD) argued in a statement that the courts could have and should have overturned the election for those reasons.(5) The court instead proclaimed Felipe Calderón the president-elect of Mexico, but López Obrador and his supporters refused to accept the decision.

Believing that the July election had been stolen from them, hundreds of thousands of supporters of López Obrador and the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) rallied in the national plaza and then camped there for 48 days and at the same time blocked the length of the city’s principal Reforma Boulevard and its major intersections, paralyzing the heart of the city. The night of September 15 they struck camp, clearing away their lean-tos and tents, to permit the Mexican Army’s annual Independence Day march, but then returned the next day for the CND joined by over a million other Mexicans from Baja California in the North to Chiapas in the South.

The organizers claimed that 1,025,724 delegates had actually registered to be present at the convention, coming from all 32 states of Mexico. Many of those present on the plaza were los de abajo, Mexico’s underdogs: factory workers, peasants, the self-employed, street vendors, school teachers, and college and high school students. Entire families and neighborhoods, from babes-in-arms to the elderly, filled the streets, many carrying hand made banners and signs.

Voice Vote in the Open Air

The CND assembly, in a series of voice votes, proclaimed López Obador the legitimate president, instructing him to create a cabinet and to establish the seat of government in  Mexico City, the national capital. At the same time the government was instructed to be itinerant, moving about throughout the country to hear from and to lead the Mexican people. The new government was instructed to take power on November 20, the anniversary of the outbreak of the Mexican Revolution of 1910. Getting the jump on his rival, López Obrador will then “take office” as “legitimate president” more than a week before Felipe Calderón, who will not be sworn in until December 1.

The CND also created a national commission lead the movement of civil disobedience and to prevent Calderón from taking office, the commission to meet on September 27 and continue between October 2 and 13, concentrating all of its efforts toward the official presidential swearing-in ceremony at the beginning of December. The next full CND assembly was scheduled for Sunday, March 21 of 2007. At that next assembly the CND is expected to organize the convocation of a Constituent Assembly to write a new constitution and re-found the Mexican government.

Constitutional and Peaceful Revolution

López Obrador argues that Felipe Calderón, “the usurper,” has violated the institutional order of Mexico. López Obrador argues that he is the defender of Mexico’s democratic traditions, and bases the calling of the National Democratic Convention and the projected Constituent Assembly on Article 39 of the Mexican Constitution which reads, “The national sovereignty resides essentially and originally in the people. All public power originates in the people and is instituted for their benefit. The people at all times have the inalienable right to alter or modify their form of government.”

This article, he argues, gives the people the right to meet and to re-found their government. The Constituent Assembly which is to take place, he argues, will establish a more democratic government, protect the national patrimony and stop the privatization of the oil and electric power industries, will provide for the good of all Mexicans, but will put the poor first on the list of national priorities.

Throughout the weeks of protests, sit-ins, and marches, López Obrador has constantly cautioned his followers to remain nonviolent, to refuse to be provoked into confrontation, and remarkably not a window has been broken nor a slogan painted on a single wall in the city. Many among the hundreds of thousands participating in the events commented that the city was actually safer during the huge mobilizations.

All this has been made possible by the fact that the PRD controls the government of Mexico City which hosted these massive protests. The PRD government insured that the police functioned to facilitate the protests and protect the protestors, rather than to suppress them. Unable to control the capital, President Vicente Fox decided not to give the traditional “grito” or Independence Day shout from the balcony of the National Palace that overlooks the Plaza of the Constitution, and instead flew to Dolores, Hidalgo, the site of the first grito given by Miguel Castillo y Hidalgo on September 16, 1810.

Security officials said that there had been plans for a violent attack, perhaps an assault on Fox’s life, if he attempted to give the grito in Mexico City. No evidence was given.

Plebiscitary Democracy

The National Democratic Convention was not a national democratic convention as most people understand those words. This was not a delegated convention, but a mass assembly. The CND was not organized through the structures of the Party of the Democratic Revolution, nor through coalitions of existing organizations, nor was any other structure very transparent. López Obrador and the leaders of his campaign created a committee to convene and to preside over the Convention, but the movement’s rank and file had no opportunity to choose its leadership or to shape its agenda.

López Obrador did not attempt to prepare the convention by convening the many mass organizations of peasants, workers and the urban poor. López Obrador did not involve in the planning or give an active role in the Convention to groups such as the Mexican Mine and Metal Workers Union or Teachers Union Local 22 or the leaders of the town of Atenco, or to any other of the existing social movements. Those who led the convention and those who stood in the rain did so as individual supporters of López Obrador.

While there was enormous popular participation and popular approval of the positions presented, a convention en masse does not permit the presentation of resolutions, debate over alternatives. This was a plebiscitary democracy where the masses shout yea or nay to the positions and alternatives offered by the person on the platform. While less rhapsodic than Fidel Castro and less charismatic than Hugo Chavez, this was a Convention based in large part on the direct communication between the leader and the people in the style of Latin American caudillos since Juan Perón and long before.

This is not to say that the CND did not have a clear political content, for it clearly did: an end to the ruling elite, defense of the national patrimony and social welfare for the people.

Critics to the Right and Left

As one would expect, all of the conservative forces have given their full support to Calderón while damning López Obrador. Throughout this process of post-election protest and the proclamation of an alternative president and government, President Fox and the National Action Party have upheld the legitimacy of the election and hailed the victory of Felipe Calderón. Like López Obrador, Fox and Calderón put themselves forward as the defenders of Mexico’s democratic institutions and argue that López Obrador threatens those institutons and raises the possibility of conflict and violence.

Predictably, the Mexican business class, represented through COPARMEX, the Mexican employers association which stands at the heart of the PAN, has also welcomed Calderón’s victory and scorns López Obrador. Mexico’s leading Bishops have also called upon López Obrador to concede defeat and recognize the victory of Calderón. U.S. President George W. Bush called to congratulate Calderón on his victory early on.

López Obrador also has critics on the left. Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas, founder of the Party of the Democratic Revolution and twice its candidate for president in the past, severely criticized López Obrador for surrounding himself and filling the party with opportunists, for lack of a serious political program, for intolerance of political differences. Cárdenas has argued that it is a great mistake for López Obrador to proclaim himself president and predicts that it will do permanent damage to Mexico’s left.(6)

Adolfo Gilly, Mexico’s leading left intellectual theorist, concurs with many of Cárdenas’s criticisms, but attacks the PRD for its two-faced position of supporting López Obrador’s campaign while making deals with the PAN, and also adds the failure of López Obrador and the PRD to support the struggle of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) movement and other popular movements.(7)

Marco Rascón, former Mexican leftist guerrilla, former PRD congressman, and irascible radical critic argues that López Obrador is a populist with “a Bonapartist attitude,” that is, that he is a would-be dictator. Rascón also argues that the National Democratic Convention represents a fundamental break with the great Mexican revolutionary traditions from Ricardo Flores Magón and Emiliano Zapata to the Cardenismo of the 1930s and the 1980s.(8)

The EZLN, of course, has never liked López Obrador. Subcomandante Marcos, leader of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation which mounted its own rather marginal non-electoral campaign for a socialism from below, has from the beginning attacked López Obrador as fundamentally conservative and opportunist. The EZLN’s Marcos did, however, speak out against the fraud in what he calls a stolen election. Whatever his critics on the left, López Obrador has not only captured the imagination of the people but has also in effect become the dominant force on the left, a great left mass movement where other leftists now attempt to offer alternative programs and directions.

The Balance of Forces

Do López Obrador, PRD, the Broad Progressive Front, and the National Democratic Convention represent the emerging institutions of a new class power? Do we see in the movement which López Obrador leads institutions that give expressions to movements and organizations of working people and the poor which begin to represent an alternative to the existing Mexican state?

Fox, the PAN and its ally the PRI, of course, control the Mexican government, its bureaucracy, the Army and the police and could use them to put down any serious opposition. Since 1994 the Mexican government has used the Army against the EZLN and the broader social movement in Chiapas in the South, and throughout the 1990s against drug dealers in the North.

During the last year the Federal government has deployed the new Federal Prevent Police (PFP) against striking workers and community activists in central Mexico. While López Obrador has called upon the Army to refuse to obey orders to repress Mexican citizens, there is no reason to doubt the loyalty of the Army and the PFP and other police forces to the government. Mexico has used the military to put down popular movements in 1959, 1968, 1976 and called out the army in 1994 against the Zapatistas, and there seems no reason that it would not be able to do so again.

Do the Numbers Exist?

López Obrador does not appear to have the sheer numbers of supporters throughout Mexico to challenge the state. Each of the leading candidates won 16 states: López Obrador and the PRD won in the poorer center and South of Mexico, while Felipe Calderón of the PAN won almost all of the more prosperous North. However, according to the disputed official count, López Obrador captured only 35.3% of the vote, while Calderón won 35.9 and Roberto Madrazo of the PRI won 22.3%. Thus almost 2/3 of all voters voted for the two more conservative candidates, while only about 1/3 supported a program of reform based on increased social welfare.

Even if López Obrador was cheated out of a million votes as many believe, he would still have had only a somewhat large plurality but nothing near a majority of support. While some people who voted for López Obrador as a reformer might be moved to adopt a position of revolutionary opposition to the state if they felt their votes were stolen, one would suspect that not all PRD supporters would take that position, while very few from other parties would join him.

Perhaps some on the far left would support López Obrador in a battle over democracy, but their numbers are few. No far left revolutionary party even qualified to appear on the ballot. Moreover, the explicitly anti-capitalist and anti-electoral “Other Campaign” of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation vehemently opposed Lopez Obrador during the campaign, and is unlikely to support him now. Mexico’s revolutionary left appears to be smaller and less significant than it was in the 1960s-1980s.

Does the Organization Exist?

Nor does the opposition appear to have the organization, structure and leadership to put together a force powerful enough to challenge the Mexican government at this time. Except for Mexico City and a few states such as Michoacan, the PRD has been a minority party and a deeply divided and factional party. Founded in 1989, the PRD has throughout its brief history been an electoral party, not a party neither founded upon nor leading a social movement. While during the campaign the PRD appeared at times to be badly divided, at the moment it seems to be showing remarkable cohesion, with the marked exception of Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas.

During the current struggle, there have been enormous demonstrations, marches, and sit- ins in Mexico City, but so far such demonstrations have been limited to Mexico City. While the PRD at times came to a working relationship with the National Union of Workers (UNT), it has never been able to give leadership to the working class or even much support to the UNT or any other union, and López Obrador has not had a labor program. The PRD does have a significant following among working people and the poor of the central and southern states, as its electoral results indicate, but beyond elections this has not been much of an organized following.

True, there are large and significant social struggles taking place today in Mexico, particularly the series of strikes by members of the Miners and Metal Workers Union (SNTMMRM) and the teachers strike by Local 22 of the Mexican Teachers Union (SNTE). However, the PRD has not given leadership to those struggles, nor do those involved in those struggles necessarily support the PRD. The leadership of Local 22 has said that it will not participate in the National Democratic Convention called by López Obrador (though some of its members might), and it continues to negotiate with Secretary of the Interior Carlos Abascal, suggesting that it looks to this Mexican government to resolve its problems, not to some possible future republic.

Finally, Vicente Fox, Felipe Calderón and the PAN have the support of the U.S. government which would much prefer to have a conservative government in power, and which certainly does not want social upheaval taking place in its neighbor nation. Without a doubt Fox has been conferring with the Bush government about the situation, and one would suppose that the Mexican military has been in touch with its American counterpart. Although it would prefer that Mexico’s elite take the necessary political action to resolve problems, the United States will certainly be prepared to use whatever means are necessary to support the Mexican government.

The Balance Might be Changed

Some have talked about what’s happening in Mexico in terms of “dual power.” Leon Trotsky used that term in his History of the Russian Revolution to describe what happens when a rising social class creates new and alternative institutions of social power. So far we have not seen that happen in Mexico where a real power, the Mexican state, confronts López Obrador and the CND, an important political and social movement, but not a movement that has been built upon or yet given rise to alternative institutions of governance that represent a second power.

Nor is it clear that López Obrador has the will or the capacity to create such institutions. What he has created is a mass movement on the left with a radical rhetoric, a movement made up of people who yearn for a new society of democracy and social justice. While his rhetoric promises revolution, his actions suggest a militant struggle for reform, which is not therefore to be discounted.

Within that struggle for reform, genuine revolutionary voices and forces may develop. Social movements, especially if they begin to have some success can grow rapidly, and unfolding events can force them to change their character. The balance of forces can shift rapidly and radically under the right circumstances. The power of mass movements has played a significant role in the change of governments in Latin America in the last decade. So, while López Obrador and the PRD may not yet have sufficient strength, a mistake by the government could suddenly give a lift to the opposition movement.


  1. Both El Universal, a conservative daily, and La Jornada, a left-wing daily said 1,250,000 people. The New York Times in a brief note reported over 100,000.
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  2. Andrea Becerril, “Crea Coalicion Frente Amplio Progresista,” La Jornada, Sept. 15, 2006.
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  3. Jorge Herrera, “Alentan partidos reforma al Congreso,” El Universal, Sept. 18, 2006.
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  4. Ciro Pérez y Roberto Garduño, “Se ampliará la mesa directive de la 60 Legislatura,” La Jornada, Sept. 20, 2006.
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  5. “Posición de la ANAD ante la Declaracion de Validez de la Elección Presiencial y la Declaración del President Electo,” no date on document, but received in September 15, 2006.
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  6. EFE, “Un grave error, nombramiento de AMLO: Cardenas,” El Universal, Sept. 18, 2006. Cardenas’s long letter to López Obrador supporter Elena Poniatowska can be found at: http://www.apiavirtual.com/html/modules.php?name=News&file=article& sid=14395.
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  7. Adolfo Gilly, “La CND, los agravios, los caminos,” La Jornada, Sept. 15, 2006.
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  8. Marcos Rascón, “De la Decena Trágica a la escena irónica,” La Jornada, Sept. 19, 2006.
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ATC 125, November-December 2006