On the Eve of the Elections: A Vote of Fear or a Vote for Change?
If the PRI wins and the destructive state party formula survives,
the transition to democracy will be aborted or at least postponed. If the opposition wins and the PRI begins to crumble, however, it could ignite a transcendental democratic change and make possible advances in social democracy.
In these last weeks leading up to the July 2 presidential and congressional elections, the situation in Mexico has become very dangerous. The population has expressed a growing desire to see the presidency change hands. The ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) is trying to stifle this desire for change by manipulating events to encourage a "vote of fear" in its favor and by resorting to all of the mechanisms of power a corrupt state has at hand.
"Gang leader" ZedilloYet another of the many signs of the government’s authoritarianism was its decision to switch to daylight saving time in the summer, which is not usually done in Mexico. Many people disagreed with this step, and several opposition governors and regional congresses criticized President Ernesto Zedillo’s decision for not having taken public opinion into account. One businessperson hit the mark when he said that in Mexico it was apparently enough to talk with 200 people—the economic elite—to make decisions. In this as in everything, the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) leaves citizens on the margins. But while participation is in short supply, there’s been no shortage of corruption. In fact, the Mexican State is globally renowned for it.
A new scandal broke out around Secretary of Tourism Oscar Espinosa Villarreal, who was accused of embezzling over US$40 million in his previous post as regent. His responsibility in the embezzlement of $5.5 billion from a major national financial institution he directed has also come to light. Even though he continues to work in the government, he was granted an enormous pension after three years in the financial institution. He has also been accused of crimes when he was managing PRI finances. He arranged credit cards with the PRI’s emblem for party leaders, and many of the debts on these cards are still outstanding and thus join the $72 billion embezzlement of the Mexican people through the FOBAPROA bank scandal.
Espinosa Villarreal tried to defend himself by claiming that his involvement in the electoral campaign was motivating the accusations. The opposition asked that he be stripped of his immunity so he could be tried on these serious charges of corruption, but the PRI, Zedillo and big business came to his defense. The Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD) retorted that Zedillo was acting like a "gang leader" and the PRI like a "criminal association" by defending a criminal like Espinosa.
It has also been repeatedly charged that the state and top army officers are involved in drug trafficking. In May, CIA officers charged that the PRI’s presidential candidate, Francisco Labastida, has been linked to drug traffickers. In his campaign, National Action Party (PAN) candidate Vicente Fox charged that the PRI has fallen into the traffickers’ hands. When asked for proof, he named Mario Villanueva, accused of drug trafficking while governor of the state of Quintana Roo; ex-President Carlos Salinas de Gortari and his brother Raúl; and Carlos Hank González, who worked on Zedillo’s campaign team and has been linked with traffickers by the DEA.
The results of two debatesThe campaign has had four important moments, before and after each of the two debates. In the weeks leading up to the first debate in March, the PRI’s Labastida held the lead. After it, his lead slipped while the PAN’s Fox rose in the polls. PRD candidate Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas’s support remained low. During the preparations for the second debate, Fox’s inflexibility cost him support, which went to Cárdenas. Cárdenas then joined Labastida in attacking Fox, which made him appear to be a man of the system. At that point, the opposition vote was split, which gave the state party an advantage, although it was still concerned about its inability to clinch the vote.
Fox also won the second debate, at the end of May. Cárdenas gained some ground, while Labastida once again appeared as a weak candidate sustained only by the party and state apparatus. Four surveys commissioned by the PRI reported that Labastida had won the debate, but the majority of independent surveys named Fox as the winner. Cárdenas attacked Labastida, moving away from the position he took in the first debate. Fox called on voters to shake off the PRI’s corruption and authoritarianism and move into a new age. He also called on Cárdenas to work with him to ensure an opposition victory, but Cárdenas declined.
Fox insists that Labastida means more of the same, that he promises change but cannot deliver because he is responsible for the current situation, and is corruption’s candidate. Manual Camacho, the former commissioner for peace in Chiapas, pointed to Labastida’s responsibility in the Acteal massacre and in the government’s refusal to fulfill the San Andrés accords. Although Labastida promised that PRI candidates would make public declarations of their personal holdings, this did not happen. He also promised a new PRI, but accepted the support of the party’s "dinosaurs."
Labastida and Cárdenas accused Fox of being untrustworthy and changing his rhetoric according to the audience. The PRI insists that the change Fox proposes is a "step backwards." The major media have unleashed a dirty war against Fox, putting forth the idea that it’s better to stay with the current known situation than risk the unknown.
A massive fraud in the makingThe presidential campaign has shown that the state party is willing to do anything to maintain its privileges and hold onto power. The enormous, flagrant frauds committed in its internal elections are signs of what it is capable of in any electoral process. The leading television networks’ information chiefs are top-ranking party members: Televisa is headed up by one of Zedillo’s political advisers; Televisión Azteca, by a former member of the PRI’s National Committee; and Multivisión, by the former private secretary and press secretary of Emilio Gamboa, a member of Labastida’s campaign team. They use these posts to promote the government and trash the opposition.
The Federal Electoral Institute had prepared a voter education spot against vote buying, but the media organization, in complicity with the PRI, boycotted this program. The PRI manipulates the polls and uses its corporativist structure to strike out in an attempt to save itself. The party’s governors and central government officials have been instructed to do "everything" to ensure a PRI victory. A massive fraud is in the making.
Change or more of the same?The choice is between change and more of the same. Those who see these elections as an opportunity for a political change, in which the main objective is to dismantle the state party, maintain that the most useful vote is for Fox, who holds the lead among opposition candidates. While Fox has called for convergence and promises to form a pluralistic, inclusive government, Cárdenas insists that if the change is not led by the PRD, a PRI win is better than Fox.
The state party regime wants it to seem that the opposition has already lost. It supports this stance with questionable polls, which will serve as an alibi in case of fraud. It is capable of manipulating the percentage of booths needed to throw the elections to Labastida through fraud, and the opposition does not have the monitoring capacity to prevent this.
The group known as Civic Alliance has called on people to defend the right to a free vote and has planned actions to fight the practices of vote-buying and coercion, emphasizing oversight and observation of the electoral process. It has been organizing volunteers and a network of citizens specializing in detecting fraud. It designed a citizens’ observatory to focus this oversight, arguing the need to define "high risk" municipalities. It also plans to follow up the use of public resources, to try to detect how funds are diverted from poverty-combating social programs into the PRI campaign.
Pressure on two and a half million MexicansOn May 7, Civic Alliance released a statement noting that a fourth of the population believes that the government’s social programs will disappear if the PRI loses the elections. Nearly half the people who receive such aid shared this belief. These figures reveal the political culture’s antidemocratic features: the official party is identified with government, viewed as the benefactor of the marginal population, and votes are seen as the way to "pay" for the social benefits received. This is the medium in which the practice of coercing votes and illegally using social programs to influence the vote can grow and thrive.
Civic Alliance proposed that the House of Representatives, through its Special Commission to Monitor Public Resource Use in Electoral Campaigns, carry out an intensive, effective publicity campaign that would reach all social sectors, especially those benefited by the government’s social programs. This campaign would clarify that no party owns the government’s social programs and that the budget assigned to these programs was approved by a pluralist Congress that has representatives of all the leading parties. It also proposed that the Church and civil society organizations working in marginalized areas join in this civic education campaign.
Over two and a half million Mexicans are beneficiaries of the government’s social assistance programs and thus vulnerable to PRI pressure on this issue. Many of these people believe that they receive their benefits from the PRI, since the party publicizes them not as government programs, paid for with public funds, but rather as the state party’s own programs. As the campaign goes on, charges of such vote coercion in favor of the PRI are mounting. At the end of May, for example, international observers witnessed the improper use of public resources in the PRI’s favor.
The bishops speakThe Catholic Church has not remained quiet during the electoral campaign. The Mexican Bishops Conference released a pastoral letter titled "From the meeting with Jesus Christ to solidarity with all." The letter begins by explaining that the bishops’ goal is to offer certainties in a time of confusion. They have drawn lessons from a review of the country’s history and current situation in an effort to find new paths, and based the document on extensive consultations with representative sectors and groups in both the religious community and civil society.
They also recalled that many members of the Church have been martyred. On May 21, John Paul II beatified 27 Mexicans, 25 of them killed during the Mexican State’s religious persecution in the late 1920s.
In their letter, the bishops describe the current situation as one in which internal demands for social justice and democratization have been seconded by the growing pressures of an increasingly globalized world. They note that the changes brought about by globalization have not been accompanied by the political and social reforms the nation requires: macroeconomic issues have been given priority, the state’s social role is in crisis, the domestic economy has declined, most people’s purchasing power has fallen, unemployment is high, the quality of life has deteriorated, and as wealth increasingly concentrates in a few hands the middle class is slowly disappearing.
Corruption, impunity, and an "anti-culture" of fraudThe bishops recall that Mexico is among the countries in the world with the most inequitable distribution of wealth. Poverty has grown over the last 20 years. Traditional agriculture is paralyzed in many areas. Migration is up. Insecurity has also increased, as new forms of violence and criminality develop and drug rings grow.
The bishops feel that the country is undergoing a "profound and complex change." Mexico is emerging as a plural society in which people are searching for spaces of recognition and participation. In response to antidemocratic, fraudulent, obsolete and unjust structures, eroded by corruption, impunity and authoritarianism, Mexican society would like to definitively move beyond an "anti-culture" of fraud, bribes, and privileges for only a few.
The bishops believe that the current development model is unable to meet the basic demands of a dignified life in terms of work, wage, security, education and health. They also note the increasing environmental deterioration, and describe the clamor to overcome the structural causes of poverty and exclusion through a comprehensive development model based on social justice.
The bishops propose forums for meeting and dialogue. They insist that the country is entering a new age that is transforming the traditional reference points of individual and collective existence, and find the change taking place in democratic processes to be a particularly significant one. They talk of a "democratic transition" and see one sign of it in the fact that there has been an alternation of power in some government posts. But they emphasize that "a more complete culture of democracy supposes the real possibility of this alternation."
They warn that the course of this transition is not guaranteed. They call on people to seek consensus and redirect initiatives based on principles aimed at achieving the common good. They say that the transition cannot be reduced to electoral issues, but rather includes the whole political system. They fear an authoritarian backlash, even one that comes through electoral means.
Electoral fraud: a grave sinThe bishops emphasize that the effective exercise of the political right to a free, secret vote faces serious obstacles. They denounce that in some situations, intimidating coercive practices sharply diminish freedom in the exercise of the vote: "In some places there is a ‘vote of fear,’ where our people’s multiple forms of poverty and ignorance are dishonestly taken advantage of to carry out various forms of electoral fraud."
And they strongly emphasize that "it must be stated with complete clarity that collaborating directly or indirectly in electoral fraud is a grave sin that undermines human rights and offends God."
The letter goes on to say that "the social and political changes so often announced but not carried through lead to exhaustion, mistrust, abstention and disgust among the citizenry. Political proposals made in the media based only on images and phrases, with strong visual and auditory impact but with no content that invites critical reflection and analysis, create an informational void akin to lies and deceit."
The bishops criticize corruption and describe the public’s mistrust of the institutions responsible for preventing crime and administering justice. They propose carrying out a more thorough reform of the judicial branch and defining the basic premises of the economic development Mexicans require to achieve equity and better conditions for the production and distribution of wealth.
They speak of improving the educational model and ethically guiding the media so it will understand that its mission is to inform, educate and entertain in a way that serves human dignity. They raise the need for basic norms to ensure that the right to free expression does not harm the rights of the people and the community. They encourage the recognition and promotion of the diverse cultures that make up the nation.
Economic growth is not developmentThe bishops propose comprehensive development based on social justice. They insist that economic growth is not equivalent to development, and encourage the creation of economic models built on solidarity. They see education as a way to build a democratic culture. They stress that Christians must collaborate in an ongoing way in building a democratic, participatory and representative culture with principles of solidarity and mutual aid that promotes human rights.
They insist that the culture of democracy cannot be reduced to merely electoral issues, but rather involves all social activities that require participation, representation and human promotion. They point out that when the media only collaborates with one kind of political or economic proposal, it betrays its commitment to help build a more pluralistic society that is healthy, critical and capable of working in favor of the changes Mexico needs. They also insist that the media must be independent from the economic and political powers that limit its impartiality and transparency.
PRI members have criticized the positions laid out in the bishops’ pastoral letter, which is being studied in discussion groups in the parishes, and demanded that these discussions be suspended, fearing that this kind of education will make the regime’s fraudulent practices harder. The government also illegally expelled an international electoral observer and prepared a large army of "observers" among groups associated with it to endorse its antidemocratic practices. As in 1994, when the "vote of fear" yielded good returns for the PRI, situations that feed fear, such as bomb threats and guerrilla attacks in the capital, are also being fabricated.
The hidden war in ChiapasChiapas cannot be left out of the campaign. If Labastida wins, the region’s future will be increasingly troubled. Labastida has encouraged the rise of paramilitary forces and the hidden war in Chiapas, while the chances of an open war to crush the Zapatistas in order to harvest more votes of fear have increased.
While in Mexico for the signing of a trade agreement between the European Union and Mexico, a group of European parliamentarians visited Chiapas. They denounced the paramilitary presence in the region and the failure to fulfill the San Andrés accords. The representative for relations with Mexico and Central America spoke of how struck they were by the extreme poverty they saw in Chiapas, and called on the Mexican government to dismantle the paramilitary organizations.
Around the same time, a US Senate committee approved a declaration expressing its disappointment over the militarization of Chiapas and criticizing the activities of the pro-government paramilitary groups that have displaced indigenous people, exacerbating their impoverishment. The declaration also expresses the committee’s concern over the treatment of international human rights observers and the summary deportation of US citizens.
Impunity in ActealOn May 17, a retired general was sentenced to eight years in prison for his involvement in the Acteal massacre. The officer was two kilometers from the massacre, heard the shots and reported to his superiors that nothing was happening, failing in his duty to protect the indigenous people from the attack. Human rights activists commented ironically about the trial and verdict that the lives of 45 indigenous people are worth just eight years of prison for one of those responsible, and total amnesty for all the rest.
Just before leaving Querétaro, Bishop Samuel Ruiz took advantage of his final moments in Chiapas to denounce the impunity of paramilitary groups. The bishop who replaced him has declared that genocide and ethnocide persist in the region.
In April, nongovernmental organizations warned that the military siege continues: while there were 197 military posts in Chiapas in 1997, three years later there are 300. Meanwhile, PAN and PRD representatives in the legislature’s Commission on Harmony and Pacification (COCOPA) have insisted that the paramilitary groups be dismantled.
Burning the Lacandona forestSince March, the EZLN has called attention to an environmental attack: in constructing this military encirclement, the Mexican army has deforested an extensive area of the Montes Azules biosphere reserve, a protected area within the Lacandona forest since 1978.
When forest fires began in the hot, dry season, two broke out in the area where the army is stationed. With this pretext, and in order to increase tension in the area, the government announced that it would send the Federal Police preventive units—the same ones who arrested the students in the National Autonomous University—to relocate communities that it tried to blame for the fires. Its pretext fell apart when satellite photos showed that no fires were to be found where the communities are located. Nonetheless, to fan the vote of fear, the government sent the police anyway, alleging that they would detain those responsible for violent acts. Although the paramilitary groups are the ones responsible for ambushes and assassinations, they were not only left untouched, but also invited to work alongside the police in stepping up the siege against the autonomous Zapatista communities and municipalities.
The Fray Bartolomé de las Casas Human Rights Center said that the plan, put into effect supposedly to address "common violence," leads one to think that the government fabricated a situation to unleash violence and create a pre-electoral climate that would inhibit citizens from exercising their right to vote freely.
Chiapas: Open war and electoral coercionThe opposition continues to charge that the government is seeking a violent solution in Chiapas and creating an unnecessary climate of tension to accomplish it. The EZLN issued a statement saying that the government, which is growing desperate since Labastida’s campaign failed to get off the ground, wants to revive the fighting in Chiapas, in a climate favorable to its goal of striking a definitive blow to the indigenous communities and the EZLN.
In early May, the Zapatista Front warned that preparations were underway for open war in Chiapas. In coordination with the army and paramilitary groups, the federal government has been sowing terror and death in the indigenous communities. The Zapatistas called on civil society to mobilize to stop the war.
They feel that social movements, which are indispensable to changing the correlation of forces, are not speaking out and appear to have been seduced by the elections. They believe that while in 1988 the hopes for change had been led by Cárdenas, they are now being led by Fox, who represents the dreams of change of millions of Mexicans since he is the only one who appears capable of defeating the PRI. Although the EZLN distances itself from Fox’s project, it respects the spirit of change that is surging up in people, and denounced the PRI’s blatant use of state force to hold onto power.
The EZLN is not siding with any party apparatus but rather with the people who want to free themselves from the PRI dictatorship. They warn that in this electoral context, the regime is sorely tempted to carry out a major political-military maneuver in Chiapas, to launch an open war against the Zapatistas as one more means of fanning the vote of fear and thus holding onto power.
First scenario: The PRI winsAnalysts stress that to achieve authentic democracy and peace in Mexico, getting the PRI out of the presidency is not enough. The state party structures must also be dismantled, because if they persist, corruption and impunity will continue. It is not that the PRI must disappear, but rather that it must stop being a state party, so it can no longer use public resources and anti-poverty programs in its favor. The PRI must become like any other party within the party system, to compete on equal standing with the rest.
One possible scenario is that the PRI wins the elections and the state party regime survives. It may well do so with undemocratic maneuvers, and because of the opposition’s incapacity. It will do it by buying votes, using public resources and ill-gotten resources—including money from drug trafficking—with the complicity of the major media. In mid-May, the media dedicated over half the time in its news broadcasts to the PRI, in violation of the law. If the PRI loses, the media will lose privileges and its complicity will come to light; if it wins, the transition to democracy will be aborted or at least postponed.
Second scenario: The grassroots opposition winsAnother scenario shows an opposition convergence rising from the grass roots, since the opposition party leaders failed to form the necessary alliance to avoid splitting the vote. The vote for President would gravitate to the opposition candidate leading in the most reliable polls. If there is a massive vote for a single opposition candidate, the PRI’s fraudulent maneuvers will not suffice to win the elections.
An opposition victory would create better conditions for citizens to push for dismantling the state party.
If the PRI recognizes its defeat and agrees to participate in a democratic scenario, it will abandon its characteristics as a state party, will not make illegal use of public resources, will not support itself through its corporative business-labor-party structures, will stop usurping the national colors and compete like any other party in the following elections. With these changes, an important step will have been taken in the democratic transition. If the PRI refuses to accept its defeat and tries to maintain power with the complicity of its powerful economic and political groups, it will unleash a political storm with disastrous consequences and the whole transition process will come crumbling down.
An opposition victory would make it possible to begin dismantling the state party and create the conditions for society’s increased participation through mechanisms to ensure accountability and open up discussions in society on the main decisions to be made. Even so, the democratic transition will still be incomplete. The necessary progress in social democracy will still be pending, and without it, there will be no democratic transition in Mexico. But in the scenario of an opposition victory, while this road would be very long, it would be passable.