June 23, 2006

Mexico Steps Back from the Electoral Brink, but Perilous Days Likely to Lie Ahead

By Michael Lettieri

With the July 2 national election looming, Mexico’s presidential race has been consumed by vitriolic ad hominem attacks which have deeply scored the finish of the country’s newly-minted democracy. As negative tactics have continued undiminished, and tit-for-tat corruption allegations seize center stage, it appears evermore likely that the legacy of the presidential race will be that of a deeply divided country. This has become an all too immediate reality: a June 16 survey by the Mexico City daily Excelsior found that at least half the country expects that one of the three major presidential candidates will not passively accept the results of a narrow defeat.

With conflicting polls suggesting that the top two candidates – Andrés Manuel López Obrador of the Partido de la Revolución Democrática and Felipe Calderón Hinojosa of the Partido Acción Nacional – are locked into an unusually tight race, such a disputed outcome seems all too plausible. Even if such a crisis is avoided, the eventual winner on July 2 will inevitably be forced to navigate a heavily mined political battleground and deal with a sharply divided legislature. Making the situation all the more tenuous is the probability that the incoming president will have won only a thin plurality of votes, as no candidate has topped 40% in national surveys in recent weeks. As the country hurtles towards election day, one thing is certain: the path both before and after July 2 is bound to be treacherous.

Another Eruption

In the past three months, pervasive unrest has challenged the stability of President Vicente Fox’s remaining days in office. The violent suppression of a steelworkers strike in Lázaro Cárdenas, Michoacan and the bloody resolution of a standoff between police and vendors in San Salvador Atenco, compounded fears that social tensions were fast approaching a breaking point. On June 14, police units brutally attempted to break up a protest by approximately 40,000 teachers who had occupied the central plaza in the city of Oaxaca for nearly a month. The demonstrators, whose strike already had successfully disrupted the school year, were demanding an increase in wages to compensate for the rising living costs in the state. As negotiations with Oaxacan governor Ulises Ruiz Ortiz became increasingly hostile, the teachers began to demand his resignation, citing “his incompetence and fascist nature.” The clash with the police hardened the conflict, as the protestors remained in the city center, promising more mobilizations.

Mobilizations by teachers’ groups traditionally have carried strong political significance, and this case appears no different. Ruiz, an old-school Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI) politician who won the governorship amidst a torrent of fraud allegations, is closely aligned with that party’s presidential candidate, Roberto Madrazo Pintado. The national teachers union, for its part, largely backs PRI defector Elba Ester Gordillo, who experienced an acrimonious split from the party during its primary process and is now Madrazo’s sworn enemy. As the striking teachers have threatened to disrupt the election if their demands are not addressed, the situation could bring on tumultuous times for both the state and federal governments in the next few weeks, although Fox may blithely choose to let the PRI absorb the public relations blows rather than risk the street violence of another Atenco.

The potential political implications of the Oaxacan situation for the PRI’s short-term fate in the final days of the current presidential campaign are not insignificant. Despite damaging internal party divisions, a penchant for scandal, and a notorious personal reputation for corruption, Madrazo has not completely fallen out of the race. Yet while the priista now lurks out of the spotlight, Calderón and López Obrador continue to jockey for an edge in a torrid dead heat.

Anticlimactic Showdown

One opportunity to gain a decisive electoral advantage came early this month. The June 6 debate had long been pegged as a potential turning point in the campaign, since it would be the first meeting between all five presidential candidates, as López Obrador had abstained from an earlier event. While the debate attracted widespread attention, it did not turn out to be the cataclysmic end game some had anticipated.

The event was hardly without intrigue, however. López Obrador delivered a potent response to attacks against him, revealing at the end of the debate that Calderón’s brother-in-law, Diego Zavala, had received lucrative contracts while the PAN candidate was energy secretary, and that Zavala’s company had systematically avoided paying taxes. López Obrador’s claim, which Calderón was unable to forcefully refute, struck at the heart of the panista’s oft-repeated campaign slogan of having “clean hands,” again underlining the fiction that corruption and nepotism have disappeared under Fox’s presidency.

A Welcome Truce

The Zavala allegations were an effective strategic move, and López Obrador seemed to recover some momentum in the days after the debate. They also furnished more than a grain of payback. The perredista had seen his lead chipped away largely by the unremitting mudslinging of both Calderón and President Fox, with both of the panistas eventually drawing warnings from the Federal Electoral Institute (IFE) for their hardball antics.

In response to this intensifying volatile climate, the seven parties participating in the elections renewed talks on a “civility pact,” which was envisioned as a way to temper pre-vote rancor and avoid post-vote conflict. In principle, the six point agreement, which was eventually finalized and signed at a June 13 ceremony, bound the contenders to obey electoral law, respect the judgments of the voting authorities, and to accept the official results of the election.

Beyond the Ballot

Even if Mexico does survive the July 2 gauntlet, the sharp social and political divisions revealed by the campaign, as well as fostered by it, can only have troubling ramifications for the country’s future.

The incoming president will be forced to try to harmonize multiple factions, some of whom will hold venomous resentment over a defeat that some may be perceived as the product of more guile than fairness. This need for diplomacy will be heightened by the victor’s palsied mandate – likely less than 40% of the vote with a high degree of abstention – and the divided congress he inevitably will have to face. One poll estimated that the PRI would net between 189 and 203 seats, with the PAN obtaining between 147 and 165, and the PRD between 135 and 151, indicating that neither of the two frontrunners can look forward to a legislative majority.

Many Mexicans, however, are unlikely to cast their ballots for any of the candidates. If the country has become polarized, it also has become somewhat disinterested. Some polls suggest that more voters will choose to abstain rather than endorse whoever wins the presidency. Such disenchantment is deeply troubling, and augers ill for the future vibrancy of Mexican governance. Regardless of the specific outcome of the election, if July 2 ignites a political firestorm and the economy stagnates, an attitude of profound alienation on the part of the citizenry could tighten its hold on the nation.

A Moment for Democracy

Mexico is struggling to find its future. Under Fox, the country suffered a litany of missed opportunities in one arena after another. Economic growth has come slowly and selectively, and has done little for the large percentage of the population living in poverty. Foreign policy blunders did grave damage to Mexico’s hemispheric standing, as Fox’s cozy photo-ops with Bush led many Mexicans to see their president and his administration as being too closely aligned with Washington, while under-serving its own national interests. Simultaneously, then foreign minister, Jorge Castañeda, was readying himself to be Washington’s informal second Secretary of State, so valuable were his many services to the Bush Administration (even if it meant the demise of Mex-ico’s cherished interlocutor status between Latin America and the U.S.).

A decade ago, a political transformation was set in motion in Mexico that eventually brought Fox to the presidency. But it remains patently incomplete, with the taint of corruption still ineluctably linked to the ruling party. Tragically for Fox, if he oversaw the first glimmer of democracy, he failed to propel its flowering. For a man perhaps overly sensitive to his place in history, the unavoidable conclusion that the progression of Mexico’s democratization has stalled after 2000, should be a painful realization. The 2006 election may yet prove a blessing for Mexican politics; however it is now equally likely it could prove to be its curse.

Michael Lettieri is a Research Fellow with the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, founded in 1975, is an independent, non-profit, non-partisan, tax-exempt research and information organization.

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