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Central American University - UCA  
  Number 283 | Febrero 2005



Disappointed with Electoral Democracy

Only a strong, broad-based grassroots movement can reverse the country’s political deterioration and people’s disappointment with its current neoliberal model and electoral democracy. The first signs of such a movement are already emerging.

Jorge Alonso

In July 2000, an electoral convergence finally succeeded in curtailing the monopoly of power held by Mexico’s Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) over the previous seven decades. Turnout was high, and people were ecstatic to think that authoritarianism and corruption had finally been eradicated.

A lost opportunity

When the National Action Party (PAN) took office, people clamored for it to right a great number of wrongs. They expected sanctions against those responsible for the bank and business frauds that had been covered up through FOBAPROA and a lifting of the onerous debt the previous government had unjustly lain on taxpayers’ backs to finance that huge bailout. They hoped the unions would finally break free of party control so free trade unionism could flourish. They hoped an inclusive economic model that could begin to close the gaping inequalities would replace the exclusive one that had impoverished and marginalized the majority of the Mexican people. They demanded respect for indigenous rights. And in the midst of this enthusiasm, a broad-based, pluralistic group set itself the task of building consensus around a much-needed and profound reform of the state. People hoped that the PRI’s repudiated state party regime had ended forever.

For all these reasons, Vicente Fox’s government began its term with a huge burst of democratic good will, but it quickly squandered it. Seeing the PRI disconcerted by the loss of presidential power, the new government could have worked to democratize the party system; instead, it encouraged the PRI, allowing it to recover. The PRI transferred its top-down, anti-democratic federal model to the state level, where its governors built fiefdoms of regional power, and the party kept a firm grip on the unions, blocking union democracy. The PAN did not reform the state. The parties concluded that furthering their own interests was more profitable than reaching agreements to respond to people’s demands. As the traditional system based on a strong presidency grew weaker, the other branches assumed greater power—not in the healthy balance required by democracy, but rather to benefit competing individual and party interests. With the entire state ignoring the San Andrés Accords, legislation was passed that betrayed the indigenous peoples. It gradually became clear as well that Fox’s party had violated election laws and made many commitments to the de facto powers of money and the media in exchange for campaign support. The PAN used presidential power to promote anti-people and anti-national reforms. Despite Fox’s initial rhetoric promising change, his economic policy followed his predecessor’s.

Obsessed with his rival,
Fox restores the PRI

In this climate, the PRI regained its strength under the leadership of its figures with the most anti-democratic pasts, not its potential reformers. Mistakenly hoping the PRI would side with him in making reforms being demanded by the World Bank, the IMF and big national and international capital, Fox put the country’s few autonomous institutions, including the Federal Election Institute and the National Human Rights Commission, in the PRI’s hands. Control over these two organizations is vital to the PRI’s goal of regaining the presidency in 2006. The party’s recovery is also favored by the disenchantment of the large segment of voters that has chosen to abstain from the next elections and the consolidation of the PRI’s election machinery through an influx of unrecorded money and mechanisms that undermine the idea of a free vote.

In an early struggle over succession sparked by the President’s office itself, the confrontation between the political parties has been growing increasingly rough. The Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD), which could present itself
as an alternative, is tied up in internal battles and its negligence on ethical issues made way for Fox’s government to take advantage of video scandals showing PRD leaders receiving money from a corrupt businessman. Fox’s obsession with protecting his own candidate while trying to undermine the success of the PRD’s Andrés Manuel López Obrador, Mexico City’s popular mayor and a prominent presidential candidate who is running strong in the polls, has led the President to manipulate the law and state institutions to disqualify him from the race. In short, Fox has slid out from under his post as President of all Mexicans to serve instead as manager of a dirty presidential campaign. Obstinate and obsessed by López Obrador’s popularity, his desire to harm a political adversary has prevailed over the search for political paths to dialogue.

The result of all of this is that the PRI is pulling ahead of both the PAN and the PRD and laying claim to the inside lane. Fox might want to be remembered for turning the PRI out of the Presidential residence at Los Pinos, but he has since done everything possible to allow its return, with the events of the last few months of 2004 only reinforcing this trend. He will thus go down in history instead as the man who restored the PRI. To top it all off, having been recognized as a business people’s government, these same favored sons of his regime are now critical of Fox.


Although Fox celebrated his fourth anniversary as President with a show of euphoria, assessments of his performance suggest that such optimism is far from warranted. According to the Global Corruption Barometer, a study by Transparency International presented in Paris in December 2004, Mexico ranks among the most corrupt countries in the world, as perceived by their own populations. The police and the political parties top the list of the country’s most corrupt institutions, followed by the judicial system.

Fox promised 7% growth, but the economy was stagnant for his first three years. As consolation, Fox boasts that inflation is under control, but other indicators are also troubling: according to the OECD, academic achievement has fallen on Fox’s watch. The promises of justice related to the dirty war that
ran from 1968 through the 1970s have not been fulfilled. Rosario Ibarra, the prominent leader of Eureka, a group representing relatives of the victims of that dirty war, has charged that Fox negotiated with those responsible for
the war to ensure that people at the top would not be implicated. Impunity continues to go unchallenged. Human Rights Watch declared that despite legislative and political efforts between 1991 and 2004 to fight torture in Mexico, the practice has not been eradicated but continues as a “symptom of a chronic problem.” Paradigmatic cases of human rights violations include the women murdered in Ciudad Juárez and the young people tortured at the hands of Jalisco’s PAN government.

Popularity falling

The most striking characteristics of Fox’s government are its inertia and lack of direction. People recognize that he has brought about greater freedom and access to information, but believe the state is hostage to big economic interests. One newspaper survey revealed that 7 out of 10 citizens have lost interest in politics. Among the military, some 44% feel that not much has changed since Fox took office.

According to a survey carried out by Consultura Mitofsky on the fourth anniversary of Fox’s inauguration, the most strongly felt problem continues to be the economic crisis (24.9%), followed by unemployment (20%), crime (17.5%), poverty (12.2%) and corruption (9.9%). The President’s approval rating has fallen: he began his term with 70% approval in February 2001, but it had dropped to 55.3% by November 2004. At the beginning of his term, 71.1% of Mexicans felt he was close to the people, but by the end of 2004 only 35.5% felt that way. At the beginning, 68.8% thought he had the leadership capacity to run the country. By the end of 2004, only 20.7% did.

What remains of Fox’s term in office will be marked by the parties’ campaigns to select their next presidential candidates, by the campaign itself and by the invariably difficult “lame duck” period between the July 2006 elections and the inauguration of the new President the following December.

Who will be the next president?

Consultura Mitofsky also did a nationwide survey to gauge the likely results of the presidential race. While 37.6% of those polled at the beginning of 2003 said they didn’t identify with any political party, that figure had risen to 41.6% by the end of November 2004. The scandals and the all-out war among the parties have left people feeling increasingly fed up with politics. In response to the question of who people anticipated voting for in 2006, 30.2% said the PRI, 17.7% the PAN and 14.6% the PRD. Among those vying to be PRI’s candidate, the leading aspirant is party president Roberto Madrazo. In the PAN, Government Secretary Santiago Creel currently holds the lead and in the PRD, it’s Mexico City Mayor López Obrador. When asked not which party but rather which candidate they planned to vote for, the order of preference shifted, with only 26.4% listing PRI’s Madrazo, 22.5% PAN’s Creel, and 33.4% PRD’s López Obrador. While López Obrador remains in the lead in virtually all surveys, his percentage in the Mitofsky poll is a 6.7-point drop after a year of bitter political fighting and a concerted, dirty campaign against him. In scenarios that do not include him, the winner is the PRI.

PRI: Preparing to return to power

The political world is caught in the whirlpool of the premature presidential campaigns. Many of those in public office are using their posts to gain a political edge in the battle, while the other potential candidates in each party are demanding that these people give up their advantageous situations in the name of equity. In the PAN, when former Energy Secretary Felipe Calderón demanded that Creel fight for the nomination on equal footing, Fox replied that any members of his Cabinet who plan to run in the elections should leave their posts by mid-2005. In the PRD, Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas is requiring that López Obrador resign as mayor.

In the PRI, the governors seeking nomination as well as the PRI’s Senate chief are demanding that the president of their party resign that post to run. The PRI, which does not respect democratic norms in elections, is trying to reach agreement on minimal norms to ensure all its presidential hopefuls the same opportunities. They have agreed to avoid negative campaigning and to subject the sources and uses of resources to an audit. Another agreements is that Madrazo will step down from his post as party president in March 2005. PRI members know that their strength lies in unity and they are bending over backward to avoid possible divisions once their candidate is nominated.

No current political moves are unrelated to the presidential race. The PRI has been adept at playing this game in Congress, where it forged an alliance with the PAN for a constitutional reform to transfer resources away from Mexico City’s government, without considering the government’s viewpoint or assessing its impact on the city’s inhabitants. The two parties simply wanted to add a financial front to the media and legal attacks on López Obrador, even if taking significant resources away from the capital would be dangerously polarizing. They have gone beyond attacking the candidate to attack the city’s inhabitants, but they don’t care.

Serious budget conflict

When Fox sent his proposed 2005 budget to the House of Representatives, union leaders, peasant farmers and social organizations denounced the significant cuts in health and education and charged that it would amount to further problems for rural areas and more benefits for those who have always been privileged. The PRI then formed a bloc with the PRD to revise the budget.

It is only fair to acknowledge that this majority bloc has made positive changes in health and education, even while taking advantage of the opportunity to shift resources away from the government and into projects such as reservoirs and highways that could win them election points. The President responded with an angry media war against the opposition representatives. Replying in the same tone, they refused to make the changes the executive branch demanded. Fox then threatened to veto the bill, but could not, at which point he decided to publish the reformed budget as passed but appeal to the courts on constitutional grounds, giving the Supreme Court the last word.

In effect, the executive asked the judicial branch to decide who would be in charge of economic policy. The appeal meant that much of the education and culture budget as well as the budget for the roads and reservoirs would be held up. It also meant that Fox would be making the judicial branch both judge and party to the conflict, since it is among the institutions affected by Congress’ budget cuts. Despite all this, Fox filed his appeal. The Supreme Court accepted it and ordered the freezing of 50 budget items totaling over US$400 million, including a cultural center in Tijuana, a cultural forum in Monterrey, a library in Jalisco, 31 highway projects and 43 sports complexes.

On December 27, the House responded by presenting two of its own appeals to the Supreme Court. A mood of surly conflict now pervades relations among all branches of the state. Meanwhile, eight peasant farmer organizations announced demonstrations against the agriculture budget cuts. While remittances from migrants abroad are cushioning social unrest, the country’s economic policy and the lack of agreements that might benefit the majority are fueling social and political enmity.

Media law reforms shelved

Key new legislation reforming the law governing radio and television, which the legislative branch promised would be a democratic step forward, was shelved for 2005, even though one of the senators who sponsored the bill described the media in their present form as a threat to democracy and a serious danger to the 2006 presidential election. People have long been clamoring for reform of the television stations, among the most influential powers in the country. The Miguel Agustín Pro Human Rights Center charged them with imposing the political agenda. But in response to the reform efforts, the owners of the two TV stations warned Fox that they would accept no cut in campaign spending—of which they receive the largest slice—and would consider any legislation as an attack on the freedom of expression.

The proposed legislation to govern radio and television, which various civic groups have been working on for the past two years, is designed to benefit society. One of its most important points establishes that, like land and water, the airwaves belong to all Mexicans. Thus radio and television activities should serve the public interest and contribute to the social benefit of all rather than just the economic benefit of a few. While the law doesn’t affect the earnings of those granted licenses, it does guarantee citizens rights over and access to these media.

Another important point is to ensure more civic input and oversight through the National Radio and Television Council. To prevent the executive branch from granting or revoking licenses at its discretion, the bill proposes creating an autonomous authority over communication issues that will provide security to licensees as well as guaranteeing certainty, transparency and impartiality in the application of the law.

Basic aspects of the law include the right to respond—proposed as an inalienable civic right—and the prohibition of all kinds of censorship. The law establishes mechanisms to ensure transparency in issuing and revoking licenses, regulates commercial advertising, establishes special provisions for non-profit stations and defines the situation of state-owned media. It also includes provisions to stimulate Mexican cinema and productions that promote national identity and culture.

Massive backing and
self-interested resistance

Writers, poets, musicians, politicians, academics, researchers, businesspeople, filmmakers, journalists, analysts, independent producers and union leaders came out in support of the bill. In an ad published on December 12, they stressed the importance of encouraging greater competition by regulating the concentration of media ownership. While most frequencies are now in few hands, the law would prevent anyone from controlling more than 35% of the licenses in any given geographic region, which its backers note would put Mexico in line with minimum international democratic standards.

The day after that massive show of support for the bill, senators at the media’s service prevented it from moving to the Senate floor for debate. In response, the bill’s sponsors won a promise that the debate would take place in early 2005. Once again, it is clear that resistance to the law has to do in part with the 2006 presidential campaigns and the sizeable profits media owners can milk out of the scandals and dirty wars of unregulated political campaigning.

In case after case,
everything is politicized

Everything that happens now is turned to someone’s advantage in the all-out war of succession. One example was the televised lynching of two federal police officers at the Tláhuac delegation office in late 2004 by an angry crowd that mistook them for kidnappers. The event was politicized to become one more piece in the political battle. The President fired the head of security in the Federal District but not the federal-level security chief, because the latter was a friend and, perhaps even more importantly, because the former, Marcelo Ebrard, was a viable PRD candidate to succeed López Obrador as mayor. Putting the judicial system to political use yet again, the Attorney General’s Office accused Ebrard of negligence and omission.

This is still more proof that although the President’s powers have been trimmed back, he still has a great deal of room to maneuver. Fox has opted to use it to strike out at his opponents and benefit future candidates in his own party.

The PRI still has
impressive political capital

In the conflicts between the PAN and the PRD, the winner is invariably the PRI, which still controls impressive political capital. It holds most gubernatorial offices, has a plurality in both the Senate and the House, controls most local legislatures, municipal governments and town councils, controls the major unions, exercises effective control over economic policy through the Bank of Mexico and Treasury Secretary—both headed by PRI members—and presides over and has the majority of votes in the Federal Election Institute. As if it this weren’t enough, it enjoys the complicity of the major media. Moreover, the all-out war of succession that has put off many people who aren’t directly involved in politics also benefits the PRI, since it has a solid bloc of voters and the most efficient machinery for manipulating voters.

The fighting both within and among the parties with no regard for people’s demands will only grow more intense in 2005. In several forums held on the issue of citizenship, participants have noted that people are disenchanted with the parties and fed up with political scandals. Unfortunately, such alienation, while utterly comprehensible, only reinforces the parties’ behavior; as civic groups join in the disenchantment and inaction, it leaves the parties free to follow their own interests. Nothing is predetermined, however, and there is still a long way to go before the elections.

Election reforms: A priority

The civil society organization Alianza Cívica came to life again in 2004. Following the disheartening experience of seeing the Federal Election Institute fall under party control—particularly PRI control—after fighting so hard to prevent it, Alianza Cívica set itself the task of synthesizing the discussions of various groups from around the country to propose election reforms.

Among those proposed reforms is legislation that would regulate the internal procedures of political parties and establish mechanisms for their democratization, transparency and accountability. Another important proposal would require parties receiving too few votes to retain their legal status to return any public campaign financing they may have received.

Alianza Cívica proposed giving the Federal Election Institute more power to oversee parties, and making it solely responsible for contracting the media for political campaigns. Other proposals include reducing the campaign period and election calendar, and allowing independent candidates to run.

To avoid partisan bias in the Election Institute, Alianza Cívica proposes changing the mechanisms for electing the members of its General Council, which is currently done by the party’s congressional representatives. Instead, Alianza Cívica proposes that the Supreme Court name a commission to take charge of issuing a public invitation and registering candidates, who would then make a public appearance. One of the requirements would be for the candidate not to have been an active party member for at least five years. Alianza Cívica also proposes that buying and coercing votes should be classified as crimes and considered reasons for nullifying an election, and that parties and candidates should be explicitly prohibited from giving gifts to the public during election campaigns.

Why so little participation?

Alianza Cívica has not focused only on electoral issues, but has also taken an interest in the larger set of issues related to civic participation. At the end of 2004, along with the Inter-American Network for Democracy, Partners of the Americas and the US Agency for International Development (USAID), it helped conduct the Mexican component of a study to establish a “civic participation index” in seven Latin American countries. The study found that 47.8% of those surveyed in Mexico believe people don’t participate because they don’t have time; 30.6% attribute it to a lack of interest or motivation, or to selfishness; 15.8% said it was due to lack of information; and 14.1% to a lack of trust. On the other hand, 42.5% felt that people who do participate do so for altruistic reasons.

Other organizations with medium- and long-range concerns that go beyond election issues also made their mark in 2004. In response to the immediate threat that Congress will approve Fox’s proposed labor bill, which would benefit businesses that are trying to make precarious employment without job security the norm and overturn the legal protections won by workers over the years, over 160 unions have united to oppose the legislation. Union and grassroots movements are also poised
to step up actions against the electricity sector reform that Fox continues to promote. And the indigenous movement has continued to defend the autonomous municipalities it established.

An ambitious initiative to
address enormous problems

A far-reaching grassroots initiative called the “National Dialogue for a National Project based on Freedom, Justice, and Democracy” began taking shape at the end of 2004. The aim of this ambitious initiative is nothing short of rescuing the nation and solving its huge problems by creating a strategic, comprehensive project. To do this, it must build a broad and powerful convergence, as inclusive as possible, among rural and urban workers; young people; migrants; small and medium industrial producers and other businesses; and the new social movements made up of environmentalists, human rights activists and people working for gender equity, respect for sexual diversity, the creation of “another world,” etc. What will bring all of these groups together is their determination to fight for an alternative to the neoliberal model.

If they are to make progress, these groups must identify the root causes of the social tensions of recent years and especially recent months. What are these tensions? It is increasingly hard to find a job. Small and medium businesses face sharp constraints related to credit, supply and the market, and many will go under. A large number of maquilas are packing their sewing machines and moving to other countries. Mexican emigration to the United States, which continues to grow at a dizzying pace, is becoming increasingly risky. The export of manufactured goods is clearly not a reliable source of economic growth. The internal market infrastructure is becoming de-linked and national businesses are being bankrupted by transnational chains whose links often run from credit banks and wholesale supply centers down to distributors and retail stores.

Official solution?
Even more privatization

Without the least bit of scientific or technical evidence, the government maintains that the country needs “structural reforms” to resolve these pressing problems, by which it means selling off and otherwise denationalizing the country’s economic patrimony. PEMEX, the state oil company—which provides the country with more foreign exchange than any other enterprise—has been portrayed as inefficient to justify its privatization. It is being denationalized through multiple service contracts with US oil and gas companies. The government’s policy is effectively handing over the country’s energy supply and undermining national and social rights. There has also been an illegal increase of private investments in electricity generation.

The government has also been gradually privatizing the social security and pension system. The panorama in education is similarly distressing, as the government has cut resources for education at all levels and seems bent on asphyxiating technological and scientific research.

The neoliberal project is affecting the majority of Mexicans, from the poor to the middle class. Small and medium companies have already been affected, and now even big ones are threatened, as their owners are being pushed into retirement or forced to become subaltern units in the transnational mega-companies.

Priorities in an alternative project

None of this has taken place without resistance. Diverse groups of citizens, peasant farmers, workers, indigenous people, unions and various other social organizations, fronts and movements have emerged to challenge the neoliberal project.

These groups propose defending the Mexican people’s right to sovereignty and the full ownership, use and enjoyment
of the country’s natural and energy resources, including oil, electricity, water, forests and land. They also propose defending the public, social sector of the economy, including food security and free education and health services.
They propose defending the workers’ rights consecrated in the Constitution, including social security and individual and social guarantees, along with basic civil rights such as freedom of expression, the rights of indigenous peoples as recognized in the San Andrés Accords. And they support the de facto autonomy established by the Zapatistas in Chiapas. Other priorities include renegotiating the foreign debt to lift the enormous tax burden it imposes on the population, and renegotiating, and where possible canceling, the government’s debt to the banks, incurred to pay for the fraudulent bankruptcy of both businesses and banks.

These groups have decided to establish a “network of networks” to facilitate the sharing of information and analysis. They plan to organize educational programs based on the pedagogy of liberation, which encourages dialogue, mutual teaching-learning, and collective decision-making. They invoke the Zapatista spirit of “governing by obeying” and “learning to obey by governing.” One very important point they are adamant about is that their activities and initiatives not be used to help position anyone for the 2006 presidential elections.

Serious risks and possible scenarios

There is a real risk that an authoritarian federal government will be restored in Mexico before we have succeeded in transforming the institutional structures that sustained the old regime.

Among the possible scenarios that cannot be ruled out are social unrest and even outbreaks of violence. Civic pressure is essential to ensure that the election campaigns remain within civilized channels. The parties don’t respond to people’s demands and challenges unless they are obliged to
by the exertion of strong, organized pressure.

Two important currents of thought have appeared in the country, one focused on the need to recover the dignity and honesty of the electoral process, and another centered on a national project with perspectives and concerns that go far beyond merely party-related ones.

People have lost their
enthusiasm for elections

A kind of “post-democracy” is imposing itself, which is so full of privileges for a few that it is triggering strong public disenchantment with merely electoral and procedural democracy. While this is problematic in itself, the greater danger is that it opens the door to the potential emergence of anti-democratic forces. Recovering the enthusiasm of the vast majority of people to vote in elections appears to be an uphill battle, given how sorely they have been disappointed.

Assuming, then, that elections will not revive civic potential, the alternative solution is to build an educated, active citizenry that can challenge the powers running this country and propose a comprehensive, civic, political, and above all social democracy. To do this, we need to build a large grassroots movement with a well-defined program on civil, political, social and environmental rights. Only such a movement can reverse the country’s political deterioration and prevent a social catastrophe, and the first stirrings of one are already perceptible.

Jorge Alonso is a researcher with CIESAS Western and envío correspondent in Mexico.

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