Andrés Manuel López Obrador: The Year Democracy Lived Dangerously
President Fox’s obsession with knocking Mexico City Mayor Andrés Manuel López Obrador, out of the upcoming presidential race went on for an entire year. Its near success threatened the very viability of Mexico’s democracy.
To tarnish the solid popularity consistently polled by Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD) presidential aspirant Andrés Manuel López Obrador, currently Mayor of Mexico City, Mexico’s President Vicente Fox opted for an alliance between his National Action Party (PAN) and the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which he unseated nearly five years ago in an historic upset. Various schemes were conceived and implemented over the past year from those pinnacles of economic and political power, in which the obvious endgame was to destroy his chances in next year’s presidential race. According to a leak to the press, Fox’s wife, Martha Sahagún, had commented that López Obrador would have to leave his post in early 2005. The media also found out about a meeting between President Fox and a wealthy business executive through which leading businesspeople sought to make clear
to Fox that they did not want López Obrador to be a presidential candidate.
A calculated planThe first scheme was the ultimately boring broadcast of videos in which some officials in López Obrador’s government appeared accepting money from a crooked businessman. When this didn’t have the desired result, the next play was to strip López Obrador of his parliamentary privileges for alleged contempt of judicial authority. The idea was that this would land him in a trial that would ultimately disqualify him as a presidential candidate.
In a press statement in early 2005, President Fox tried to convince the public that he would have no hand in the outcome, as it was a matter for the judicial branch, and was pained by the whole situation. Referring to a call he made to Supreme Court President Mariano Azuela in April 2004 to request a meeting to deal with the López Obrador issue, Fox called it the hardest decision he’d had to make that year.
A feeble pretext What was the basis of the accusation of contempt? In November 2000, shortly before López Obrador took office, his predecessor had expropriated two segments of a piece of land called El Encino in order to extend an avenue to reach a hospital. Three days after the new governor was inaugurated, La Promotora Internacional Santa Fe filed a claim against the expropriation, arguing that it owned the terrain. At the outset, the federal judge assigned to the case did not grant the company’s petition to suspend the roadwork, so it filed a complaint with a higher court. At that point, the judge in question granted the requested suspension so the capital’s authorities would not block access to the land. Two months later, the company alleged that this provisional suspension had been violated. The judge ruled that the documents presented were insufficient, as they did not prove that the authorities were blocking or otherwise preventing access to the land.
The judicial process continued its course until the provisional suspension was ruled definitive in March 2001. Faced with that decision, the authorities were forced to cut a new stretch of road to provide vehicle access to the hospital, but in August of that year the company again accused the city government of violating the suspension. That same month, Secretary of Government José Agustín Ortiz Pinchetti presented a report showing that the judicial disposition had been honored, which was verified next day by the court clerk, who testified that accesse to the land had not been blocked.
Nonetheless, at the end of August a new judge declared that there were grounds for the charge. The secretary of government challenged that ruling, demonstrating that the municipal government authorities had issued no accord, order, resolution or official note, or executed or omitted any act involving defiance of the judicial suspension, stating that there was no reason to paralyze the opening of roads other than in the expropriated segments that served as access to El Encino. In early 2002, the seventh circuit court confirmed the judge’s resolution and added an obligation that had not appeared at any earlier point: to respect the access not only of individuals but also of vehicles, and notified the Public Ministry of all this. The judge never went to the site to verify if the protection order had indeed been violated, but merely accepted the supposed inspections conducted by court clerks as evidence.
A twisted intentFinally, in October 2003, the Attorney General’s Office subpoenaed for questioning several local government officials imputed by the company to have disobeyed the suspensions. All were asked the name of their immediate superior. While the obvious intent was to hold the head of city government responsible, none of the witnesses implicated López Obrador. Nonetheless, the Attorney General’s Office decided to indict him, and only him.
The judicial proceeding was full of irregularities. The company first claimed 100,000 square meters but later presented a deed for only 86,000, while it appears in the Public Registry as possessing no more than 83,000. The PRD repeatedly charged that the owner of this land had in fact violated the law by appropriating national territory. The city government alleged that the stretch in question was not accredited as its property at all, but the judges paid no attention to this evidence. It became obvious that the company, evidently in alliance with President Fox, had gotten mixed up in the media-waged political struggle against López Obrador.
Given all the dicey issues in the case, the Attorney General’s Office could have opted to throw the case out, as it had done in other similar cases. Although the President’s Office repeatedly insisted that this was a strictly judicial affair, most people recognized it as a political issue and believed the executive branch was using the Attorney General’s Office for partisan purposes.
Those who threw the first stoneThe government engaged in a costly media campaign, paid for with taxpayer’s money, to try to convince the population that it was a simple issue of respecting the law and that a minor crime—such as stealing a candy bar—undermines legality as much as a major one.
The principal instigators of these pseudo-legalistic maneuvers against López Obrador couldn’t pass the candy-bar
test of their own respect for the law. Both President Fox and his secretary of government had disobeyed it in the case of the “Friends of Fox” financing for their respective electoral campaigns in 2000. Other PAN members had blocked any sanctioning of the state petroleum company executives who illegally used company money for the PRI candidate’s campaign that same year. And before Rafael Macedo de la Concha was appointed attorney general, he had been accused by numerous independent human rights organizations of failing to respect these rights and of having participated in the dirty war against PRI regime dissidents. Later, even PAN leaders had accused the Attorney General’s Office of both defying the law and twisting it for its own purposes.
Then there was Deputy Attorney General Carlos Vega Memije, who painted López Obrador as a world-class crook for the El Encino case in his declarations; back when he was prosecuting attorney and secretary of government in the state of Guerrero, the PRD had accused him of illicit enrichment, influence peddling and repression. There was also PRI president Roberto Madrazo, another presidential hopeful, who had been accused of using ill-gotten money in his campaign for governor, and using it in excess to boot; he spent more than Clinton did on his presidential campaign. Madrazo saved himself from a well-founded accusation to strip him of his own privileges thanks only to the complicity of the PRI and the Green Party.
Continuing with the list, PRI legislator Manlio Fabio Beltrones, president of the House of Representatives, was accused in the United States of conniving with the drug cartels when he was governor of Sonora. And one of the loudest voices censuring López Obrador, PRI member Chuayffet, had been accused of being involved in the massacre of indigenous people in Acteal.
For good measure, the PRI-PAN alliance had been responsible for one of the greatest holdups against the Mexican people: the approval of FOBAPROA, the institution created for the bank bailout operation that enriched fraudulent bankers and left the population indebted for generations to come. All of these fine upstanding people, including the Supreme Court president, who was also linked to the old political system, presented themselves as the champions of legality in an effort to bring about López Obrador’s downfall.
Many warning voicesThe concrete accusation against López Obrador was not having respected a suspension, for which the judge asked that he be stripped of his parliamentary immunity and the attorney general officially requested the House of Representatives to open a procedural trial to do just that. Juventino Castro y Castro, a prestigious retired Supreme Court justice, argued that the House was legally required to dismiss the suit because federal judges have no legal faculty to request that an official be stripped of parliamentary privileges for allegedly defying a suspension, nor is the Attorney General’s Office empowered to ask the House to initiate such a trial.
Other jurists noted that the principle of proportionality was being ignored as there appeared to be a desire to throw
the book at López Obrador on unproven charges of a supposedly minor infraction. The former rector of the National Autonomous University of Mexico, Pablo González Casanova, warned that closing the way to Mexico’s Left by trying to criminalize one of the candidates would create a chaotic and self-destructive situation in the country. Many intellectuals and editorial writers stressed that the scheme against López Obrador was a form of electoral fraud.
Other voices also began to be heard, accusing Fox’s government and its allies of attempting an authoritarian coup to exclude the mayor that involved bending the legal framework. They demanded that citizens be allowed to decide whom they wanted for their President at the polling places and warned that Fox’s obsession could create a situation of ungovernability.
Among those participating in the growing debate over the months was Subcomandante Marcos, who argued that Mexico’s destruction as a nation was not only economic and social, but also legal and political, and that to go
as far as stripping López Obrador’s privileges would be to regress a century by annulling the electoral route to power. Marcos accused Fox and the rest of the Mexican Right of using the judicial system as its own patrimony. Knowing that the sanction was unsustainable in strictly juridical terms, it was counting on twisting the law to hide its illegality.
In the midst of the political uproar, however, several polls confirmed that López Obrador kept his lead ver other presidential aspirants in the polls, well ahead of both Madrazo and PAN Secretary of Government Santiago Creel, both of whom wanted him derailed by whatever means it took. The polls also showed that four out of every five citizens opposed removing López Obrador’s privileges.
López Obrador’s defense On April 7, 2005, López Obrador called for a peaceful resistance movement before more than 100,000 sympathizers. His adversaries gambled that he would lose his cool and incite violent actions, but he did no such thing, instead warning emphatically that the violent ones were not in his movement. He told the crowd he had decided not to counter-sue for protection of his immunity or even request freedom on bail, but would continue his political fight from prison. He also labeled the trial to which he was being subjected a farce, since everyone realized it was a political rather than judicial issue.
After calling for a march of repudiation for Sunday, April 24, he appeared before the House of Representatives to defend himself. In that hearing, he charged that his trial was a falsity and that the dossier against him was riddled with falsehoods. He said he had violated no law and had signed no document or ordered in any other way that the protective suspension granted the presumed owner of El Encino be disrespected, and asked where the deceit and bad faith was if in fact the road had not been built.
He insisted he was being judged not for violating the law but for his way of thinking and acting, and for what he, together with other Mexicans, could represent for Mexico’s future. He declared that those governing the country were upset because his program of economic growth, job creation, construction of public works, health, education, housing and support to the most humble and forgotten people in Mexico City could be spread all over the country. They wanted to cut him off, deprive him of his political rights for the 2006 elections. Those who accuse me, he said, criticize whatever little is provided to benefit the majorities as populism, yet call the excessive amount given to the rapacious minorities promotion. They are the same ones, he added, who privatize the profits and socialize the losses, the same ones who have turned Mexico into an ocean of inequalities and fear that the population might opt for a genuine change.
PRD colleague Diana Bernal, currently a legislator but backed by 10 years of experience as a judge in administrative issues, made solid legal arguments against stripping him of his privileges. Although she demonstrated that the committee findings were unsustainable, even conjuring up Antigone to remind House members that injustices can be committed through legal decisions, her arguments carried no weight. The deal had already been cut between the PRI and the PAN; 360 members of these two parties voted to consummate it.
Widespread international repudiation In the United States, Credit Suisse First Boston, one of the most important firms in the world financial community, stated that stripping López Obrador of his immunity was a clear attempt by interest groups to derail the candidacy of the most popular politician using questionable methods and ignoring the opposition of the majority of Mexicans. It was just one indication that Fox’s government was running a high and futile risk, putting the legitimacy of the upcoming presidential race in question.
The world’s most prestigious newspapers strongly condemned the decision. An analysis in The Economist Intelligence Unit recognized that the House vote was the result of machinations by the PAN and PRI and dittoed the warning that if López Obrador were sidelined from the electoral contest it would call the presidential elections into doubt. The Wall Street Journal went a step further, fearing that the decision had already compromised social peace in Mexico.
The New York Times saw the accusation against López Obrador as transparently political in a country where multi-million dollar misappropriations cases went unpunished. This newspaper stressed that it had never been shown that López Obrador had personally instructed anyone to disobey the judicial order. Moreover, making him and not his subordinates responsible went contrary to the legal principles under which they were trying to judge him, which stress personal responsibility. If gunning only for the top boss were applied equally to all, it was argued, the mayors of major cities would find themselves implicated in hundreds of criminal cases. With this outrage, the 2006 presidential campaign was harking back to the old days when the PRI dictatorially rigged the elections in favor of its candidates.
The Washington Post also saw the decision as a democratic setback and warned that if López Obrador were eliminated from the ballot, Mexico would return to the era in which the country was governed by fraud and by force, with the next President discredited at home and abroad. The Los Angeles Times concurred, arguing that it was an absurd decision that stained the political system’s credibility since in a country and culture accustomed to rampant corruption and presidential abuse of power, the charges against López Obrador were equivalent to disobeying a traffic regulation.
In England, The Financial Times also warned of the possibility of a political and economic crisis, recalling the never-punished politicians of “PEMEXgate,” who had channeled over US$100 million of Petróleos Mexicanos (PEMEX) money into the PRI’s presidential campaign. The Economist echoed the argument that the punishment was disproportional to the alleged crime and that the entire process threatened political rights in Mexico.
In France, Le Monde underscored that the government’s arguments against López Obrador had convinced nobody in a country where justice was used like a geometric variable and those responsible for scandals such as Friends of Fox or Pemexgate had enjoyed systematic impunity. In Italy, Il Manifesto accused Fox’s wife of having orchestrated the whole operation from the shadows, while Spain’s El País and El Mundo criticized it and Russia’s Pravda called it a critical test for Mexico’s transition to democracy.
Important television news reports from the BBC, CNN, ABC and NBC were also strongly critical of the Mexican government. Political scientists and analysts seemed shocked and agreed that Mexico was returning to the shadows, while Nobel Literature laureate José Saramago confessed that he had incorrectly thought himself “vaccinated against stupefaction” and could only interpret what was happening in Mexico as a “lack of decency.” Salman Rushdie, Ryszard Kapuscinski, Laura Restrepo, Breyten Breytenbach and many other writers participating in the international festival “Voice of the World” signed a declaration expressing profound concern about the maneuver against López Obrador, condemning what they called an “assault on Mexicans” to prevent them from expressing their will and deciding their country’s future political leader themselves. Numerous European jurists and academics pronounced the decision illegitimate and politically opportunistic, violating the supreme value of citizens’ vote. Mexican students abroad, migrant organizations and solidarity groups demonstrated against the stripping of López Obrador’s privileges in the United States, Europe and Latin America.
Mexico’s Foreign Relations Secretariat tried to silence this widespread repudiation with letters to the editor of the newspapers, but the cure was worse than the disease. How could it be otherwise, since the perpetrators had no more convincing arguments at that stage than they had had before?
The reactions in MexicoLópez Obrador’s enemies in government, the PAN, the PRI and the business elite, joyously celebrated the vote against him. A ghost civic group conjured up by the Secretariat of Government sponsored a costly television campaign that only worsened the political and social polarization.
Meanwhile, discontent continued to mount among those who saw the maneuver as an attack on democracy. The UNAM rector called it a political error. A former Federal Election Institute president echoed the concern that it would affect the legitimacy of next year’s presidential elections. Independent workers’ organizations accused Fox of having lost his way. Representatives of indigenous groups expressed concern. Academics, artists and op-ed writers cranked up their criticism of the aims of such an illegitimate move. The op-ed pieces in the majority of the print media could not have been more adverse to those who had schemed up the maneuver to manipulate the law in order to get what they feared would not be won at the ballot box. The watchdog organization Civic Alliance called it a mechanism aimed at ending the country’s democratic progress in one blow, a perversion of the law that would lead to a mock democracy and an offense against the citizenry’s intelligence.
Human rights organizations charged that the right to elect freely was being stomped on, and added that both Fox and the Attorney General’s Office had refused to respect the principle of presumed innocence. The National Association of Democratic Lawyers declared that the ruling against López Obrador was tainted from the beginning. Prestigious criminal experts charged that the Attorney General’s Office was using the law to eliminate adversaries. The maneuver’s authors were also accused of having put a time bomb under democratic coexistence, triggering social confrontation and creating a climate that would lead to a lack of governability. And so it continued; the political intent in the accusations against López Obrador came under stronger criticism with every passing day.
The discontent continued to mount with such intensity that it even began to dent the armor of some senators from the governing party. One of them, Javier Corrall, described the plot to drape a mantle of legality over the elimination of the leading presidential candidate as “one of the political class’ most erroneous, absurd and unjust decisions.” He condemned the television manipulation of the case and, as various commentators had already done, accused those who had taken advantage of the case’s judicial complexities to argue in favor of stripping López Obrador’s immunity of committing the great injustices of disproportion and selectivity. Corrall’s remarks were but one of many examples of the fact that the government’s treatment of the citizens as fools was making even those who were not sympathizers of López Obrador quite indignant.
Widespread repudiationThe PAN government’s political and judicial incompetence also became more evident by the day. Two figures who had contributed to the democratic transition, President Fox and Government Secretary Santiago Creel, came to be seen as opponents of democracy and allies of the worst sectors in the PRI because of their blind ambition. People speculated that Fox’s obstinacy was triggered by his fear that if López Obrador won the elections, he would open an investigation into Fox’s closest circle of associates.
In its fixation to get López Obrador out of the race, the government exacerbated divisions among Mexicans. The crisis even affected the Catholic hierarchy. The Mexican Bishops’ Conference declared early on that barring a candidate from the race would have serious repercussions on the 2006 elections. Later, the Social Pastoral Commission sharply criticized Congress’s decision to strip López Obrador of his immunity. At that point, Creel pressured the Bishop’s Conference president to make another statement emphasizing the importance of abiding by the law. Once achieved, Creel then declared that the last statement was the most important one, dismissing the position taken by the Social Pastoral Commission. As the atmosphere grew increasingly tense, Raúl Vera, the bishop of Saltillo, criticized the government for trying to discredit the Commission’s position.
Those who had promoted the idea of casting a “useful vote” for Fox in the 2000 elections, arguing that it was better to finally get the PRI out than to waste one’s vote on a third candidate (i.e. from López Obrador’s own PRD) who didn’t have a chance, were among the most upset. Many of them sent him letters contending that if justice were truly a priority for his government, those responsible for the PEMEXgate scandal, PAN’s governor of Morelos and many others would be facing trial. One of Fox’s former associates, Porfirio Muñoz Ledo, not only spoke personally with the President but published an open letter warning him that the country was facing a serious political breakdown that risked aborting the democratic transition, and that the President himself was mainly responsible. Referring to “a palace conspiracy,” he reproached the President for his intolerant sectarianism and obsession with eliminating an adversary, and asked him not to lead the country over the brink.
In the House of Representatives, a PAN representative even spat on a PRD colleague, which the press described as a shameful expression of hatred, warning that such a spark could ignite violence. In all of the events that Fox and his wife attended, people spoke out against what they were doing.
Supported by huge crowds all around the countryAfter the House of Representatives wrongly stripped López Obrador of his parliamentary immunity and removed him from his post, he went home, where he continued to speak out and take action. He challenged Fox to openly debate the matter and explain why he was so determined to get López Obrador out of the presidential race. He then began traveling around the country, urging peaceful resistance. This tour showed him that people’s repudiation of the machinations against him was turning into a fight for freedom, democracy and justice.
In the capital of Tabasco, 70,000 people came out to support López Obrador. In Guadalajara, he told the demonstrators that the 160,000 pages in the dossier prepared against him contained no solid proof, relying only on conjectures and inferences to implicate him even though he had signed no papers and given no orders in the El Encino case. He once again called on people to act peacefully and expressed his willingness to talk on condition that he be guaranteed that his political rights would not be suspended. Writer Fernando del Paso also spoke at the event, insisting that “never had such a dirty affair been so clear” in the country’s recent history. Like many others, he underscored that sad note that López Obrador was being persecuted for building a street to a hospital, while drug traffickers, murderers, thieves and bad rulers enjoy impunity.
In another huge demonstration in Tepic, López Obrador insisted that Fox’s actions were not only a personal attack on him but also an attack on democracy, as they robbed the Mexican people of the right to freely choose their rulers. At an event in Acapulco, he urged people to hevaluate the actions being taken against him, concluding that the government was making itself look ridiculous. At all of these events, people chanted that he wasn’t alone.
Fox and his ruling class allies expected the public protests to simply run out of steam. But the opposite happened; they grew stronger and more numerous over time. And despite extremely costly media campaigns, the government didn’t manage to convince anyone.
The legal battleSince the Attorney General’s Office had not proven that López Obrador had given signed instructions in the case, several social organizations called on the attorney general to withdraw the charges. The PRD, backed by a petition signed by 5,000 people, requested that Minister Mariano Azuela recuse himself from any Supreme Court decisions related to the case since he had shown he was not impartial.
The government continued to handle the case improperly. The PRI and PAN legislators committed a serious mistake by putting the motion to strip López Obrador of his immunity in the same resolution as the motion to immediately remove him from his post, in open violation of the Constitution, which clearly states that accused officials will remain in their posts until tried and convicted. The Federal District’s Legislative Assembly, which has a PRD majority, argued that the decision on whether to strip López Obrador of his parliamentary privileges should have been up to them, not the House of Representatives, since he is the Federal District’s head of government and the Assembly serves as its congress. The Assembly voted to keep López Obrador in his post, and filed an appeal with the Supreme Court arguing that the House had overstepped its authority and violated the Constitution. In response, the House appealed the Assembly’s decisions. The Court admitted both appeals, whereupon the Attorney General’s Office and the House each filed separate appeals to challenge the Court’s decision to admit the Assembly’s appeal.
Five hundred faculty members at the Mexican National Autonomous University filed a petition in Congress charging that the 360 representatives who had voted to strip López Obrador of his immunity had violated the Constitution. They asked that these representatives’ alternates be called instead when it came time to address the case because the others would be acting as both judge and party.
A ridiculous maneuverOn April 20, the Attorney General’s Office submitted López Obrador’s case to the courts for criminal prosecution. By this time, however, those responsible for the whole sham didn’t want him arrested first, since a photo of him behind bars for a minor infraction would further discredit Fox’s government, fuel public outrage and undoubtedly increase support for him.
To avoid this, the Attorney General’s Office cooked up yet another ridiculous scheme. It asked not for López Obrador’s arrest but simply for his appearance in court, since two PAN representatives had supposedly posted the $200 in bail on his behalf. The government was trying to kill two birds with one stone: keep López Obrador out of jail, while barring him from the presidential race on the grounds that he was facing trial, but López Obrador foiled it by telling the judge he would accept no bail he had not arranged himself. The PRD announced that it would file charges against the Attorney General’s Office for even presenting the file to these two PAN representatives, when neither the accused nor his lawyer had seen it. This bail episode further degraded the whole process as the public strongly repudiated the maneuver.
In the wake of these events, the judge assigned to the case ruled that the Attorney General’s Office had acted incorrectly in letting someone out on bail who hadn’t yet been arrested, and returned both the file and the bail money. Constitutional experts argued that López Obrador should remain in his post until the Supreme Court decided the appeals, and López Obrador announced that he would return to work on April 25.
A historic, pluralistic, massive marchIn its efforts to dismiss him, the President’s Office constantly referred to López Obrador as “Mr. López.” Instead of belittling him, however, this brought him closer to the people. When he called on his compatriots to join him in a silent protest march on Sunday, April 24, the turnout was enormous and impressive.
The march testified to a citizens’ alliance against the attacks on López Obrador and in favor of democracy. It was without a doubt the largest and most pluralistic march in the country’s history. A million people from all social classes turned out to show their repudiation of the government’s maneuvers.
People carried clever, creative homemade signs: “Three million voted for you, 360 representatives can’t get rid of you,” “Stop the Foxy use of power,” “Fox, Martha makes your decisions, but you don’t make mine!” “Stop the mean and dirty tricks,” “AMLO [López Obrador’s full initials] is not my saint, but I’m devoted to democracy,” “We are all López.”
Reiterating that he would continue peaceful actions, López Obrador called on his adversaries to set aside any ill will. He explained that he didn’t hate anyone, wasn’t interested in vengeance and he wouldn’t prosecute anyone or invent crimes. Calling on people to build a new social contract with less inequality and more justice, he proposed forming a pact with all willing sectors, emphasizing that his project was not an exclusive one.
Commentators praised the mammoth, peaceful, heterogeneous march and the conciliatory tone of the man who called it. Again, they criticized Fox’s government for leading the country into an unnecessary confrontation, all supposedly for an alleged crime worth no more than $200 in bail.
Stubborn, crude blindnessDespite all this, the federal government persisted in its blindness: Fox said he knew nothing about the march because he’d spent that Sunday watching the new Pope on television. The next day, in a Monday morning press conference before a large number of Mexican and foreign journalists, López Obrador once again expressed his willingness to talk with Fox, the PAN and the PRI.
In the United States, The New York Times noted that the country’s traditional power structures were not in control of the situation, despite their money and media control. The news of the march circled the globe. For people all over the world, the conclusion was simple: anyone who opposed or feared López Obrador should have their say at the polls.
And still, the President continued to respond in increasingly clumsy ways. “Mr. López,” he said, had broken the law by going back to work. He responded to López Obrador’s conciliatory talk by calling him “a provocateur” and urged those who disagreed with the mayor’s actions to file criminal charges against him. It seemed that the conflict was bound to escalate even further. In an unusual statement from Cuba, Fidel Castro recommended that Fox retire before violence broke out in Mexico.
Why the about face?At this point, something happened in the President’s Office: the hardliners who had predominated up to that point stepped back, giving way to those in the executive branch who favored a political solution. Some analysts believe this was a result of their assessment of the political damage—demonstrated by a drop in the polls for both the President and his party—and the intense national and international criticism. Such a change in the internal correlation of forces perhaps made it possible for the government to change course, albeit a bit late.
It was also rumored that the change could have been due to pressure from the United States, concerned about the increasing grassroots discontent, which Fox, stubborn though he is, could no longer ignore. The government may
have also been concerned that, while the massive grassroots demonstrations had taken a peaceful course thanks in part to López Obrador’s responsible guidance—which reassured the markets—a sense of accumulated insult could lead to greater tensions. That, ultimately, could trigger an unstoppable movement that would surely end up demanding Fox’s resignation, as occurred in Ecuador during those very same days. It is very likely that the change was due to a combination of all these factors.
The unexpected change in courseWhatever the case, it was clear to everyone on Wednesday, April 27, that the President’s statements that day radically changed the situation. Fox announced that Rafael Macedo de la Concha was stepping down from his post as attorney general, along with Assistant Attorney General Carlos Vega Memije. He also announced that López Obrador’s case would be thoroughly reviewed, in an effort to ensure the greatest possible political harmony in the country while preserving the rule of law. He called on people to seek agreements instead of futile confrontation, dialogue instead of challenges, conciliation instead of division. He promised that the federal government would not prevent anyone from participating in the 2006 elections, and said he would send Congress a bill to protect the rights of citizens facing trial until a final, definitive verdict had been reached in their cases. He later stated that the decision to review López Obrador’s case cleared away any clouds that might be hanging over the 2006 elections, ensuring that they would be free and fair. Fox described the measures he had announced as a “state decision” aimed at dispelling fears and providing guarantees to all Mexicans.
The people’s triumphThe President’s Office accepted López Obrador’s formal request as mayor for a meeting, noting that politics provides room to find legal solutions. López Obrador replied that he was willing to meet with the President whenever he wished, and celebrated the calmer, more relaxed environment that made it possible to build democracy. He attributed the change in the situation to the citizen’s mobilization, as did many of the commentators, describing it as the triumph of the people.
The President’s move left other participants in the operation, who hoped to gain political ground by knocking López Obrador out of the race, in a tough spot. The most visibly displeased was the PRI’s president, Roberto Madrazo, who leveled his criticisms against Fox, accusing him of giving López Obrador preferential treatment, and demanded that the President stay out of the election. The President’s office continued to call for prudence and moderation, and noted that before making his decision, the President consulted the PRI leadership, business leaders and the Catholic hierarchy.
A new climateIn this new climate, the ruptures lying just beneath the surface in both the PRI and the PAN once again came to light. A PAN presidential candidate and several of the party’s congressional representatives praised Macedo and criticized the actions of the secretary of government, insisting that he should resign as he was one of the instigators of the failed adventure. Nevertheless, the vast majority praised the President for resolving a conflict that threatened social peace.
The secretary of foreign relations told the diplomatic corps that López Obrador, while not responsible, had been a victim of the bureaucracy. Private enterprise, which had pushed the government to take action against him, now expressed its support for the President’s u-turn, though it later showed itself divided on the attorney general’s specific solution. In the May 1st parade, business and labor leaders both expressed satisfaction that the time had come to reach agreements.
López Obrador trusted that an impartial review of his case would find him innocent. He recognized that by rectifying his position, Fox had acted as a statesman, and asked people to trust the President’s promise. López Obrador’s lawyer recommended that the Attorney General’s Office, instead of getting lost in a mountain of papers, send someone straight to the site to verify that no crime had been committed.
Finally, on May 4, 2005, the newly appointed attorney general ruled that, while evidence showed that López Obrador had allegedly committed an infraction, he would not proceed with criminal charges because the sanction was not clear. The PRD’s national leadership responded that although the ruling was contradictory, it definitively settled López Obrador’s legal situation, and announced that he would resign from his post in July to participate in the party’s primary elections.
The head of the PRD in the Federal District felt the situation had only been half rectified, since the decision left a crack open for legal challenges. Some legal experts saw a serious contradiction in the Attorney General’s decision, since if a crime had been committed, there must be a corresponding sanction. If there were no sanction, they argued, there could be no crime, and the Attorney General should have decided that none had been committed. The Attorney General’s Office squirmed out of the situation by attributing a nonexistent crime to López Obrador, when it should have simply exonerated him. Despite this, however, the decision contributed to the more positive climate in the country.
ResistanceThe people behind the actions against López Obrador ended up being nationally and internationally ridiculed. The PRI leaders and representatives responsible for pushing the decision through the House of Representatives continued to talk about legality and accused Fox of having proceeded in an immoral way. They argued that to clear López Obrador, a judge would have to absolve him or release him for lack of evidence, although they admitted that these actions wouldn’t normally ensue since the Attorney General’s Office had never filed criminal charges. Thus, the PRI—the party that has made immorality a form of government, manages to remain together thanks to a pact based on impunity, has used an authoritarian legality for its own benefit without bothering about legitimacy and has a long and continuing history of electoral fraud—continued to talk about the rule of law.
In the other corner, López Obrador accepted the decision, while still rejecting the notion that he was responsible for any infraction. He hoped that the Attorney General’s Office would admit there had been no evidence for accusing him. Nevertheless, after acknowledging that all participants in the conflict, himself included, were on the verge of leading the country into political instability, he felt the situation had been resolved in a positive way. He agreed with Fox that it was time to turn the page, and proposed a national political pact. In doing so, he deactivated the peaceful resistance to make way instead for the organization of a civic movement around an alternative national project.
Case closed?It appears that the case is closed. In general, however, cases don’t fully close, but rather overlap and link up with other events, leading to new situations that depend on what came before. Because of this case, the fight for the presidency will become harder and angrier.
Those who tried to knock López Obrador out of the race with legal maneuvers will look for other ways. And the civic convergence for democracy will have to remain alert, to avoid encouraging the development of an authoritarian style of leadership around a single powerful figure, and to build their capacity to guarantee lasting forms of citizen participation and channels for their demands.
Legality and the rule of law?The government based its argument in the conflict on the idea of legality, but the old regime’s legal system, which has not been reformed, clearly encouraged the partisan use of the law and selective use of justice to eliminate political adversaries. There are serious problems in the judicial system that allowed manipulation, arbitrariness and a lack of moderation and simple good sense. Some argued that the law should be applied no matter what the economic, political and social consequences, making the law an end in itself and forgetting that it is only a means to guarantee justice.
Much was said about the rule of law, but authoritarian states are typically the most disposed to this line of argument and are invariably well-equipped with unjust laws to subdue their citizens. What we need to build instead is a democratic rule of law based on authentic justice that doesn’t allow the state to impose disproportionate sanctions for minor issues, while those responsible for large crimes enjoy impunity.
A bipartite stateIt was also clear that the PRI has not yet changed in any significant way. It still manipulates institutions to advance its own interests, without bothering about legitimacy or justice. The PAN let down its democratic mask to show that it suffers from the same authoritarian virus as the PRI. It resorted to the same arguments used by the old regime against political prisoners. It completely forgot the teachings of one of its founders, Efraín González Luna, who was politically persecuted and firmly opposed to the partisan use of power.
The 2000 elections appeared to put an end to the state-party era. But events soon belied this appearance: instead, there were signs that the country was heading towards a kind of two-party authoritarian regime, a bipartite state. Two of these signs were the formation of the Federal Election Institute, obviously divvied up between the PRI and the PAN, and the agreement between these same two parties to bump López Obrador out of the race.
It didn’t matter to the PRI and PAN representatives that the vast majority of the country’s citizens opposed the move. They were trying to revive the old tradition whereby the President hand-picked his successor—in this case as in others, by means of fraud. By refusing to listen to those who elected them, they called into question the current form of Mexico’s representational democracy.
The government’s actions constituted an attack against the citizenry and against a true, complete democracy. It was an attack against electoral democracy, as it tried to prevent a candidate from participating in the elections. It was also an attack against political citizenship, since it sought to violate the political rights of the candidate as well as the rest of the country’s citizens. And above all, it was an attack against social democracy, as it tried to shut the door on a candidate who proposes an alternative to the neoliberal economic model.
Promising trendsThe main instigators of the operation were the powers that have traditionally run the country through their wealth and their control of the mainstream media. This episode revealed three promising possibilities, of which the first is that these powers, accustomed to using the state to their own benefit, can be reined in and some of their expressed purposes defeated by the massive action of organized citizens. It was possible to put a break on their abusive use of power.
The second promising sign is that the civic movement, which had disbanded and fallen into a kind of apathy after the 2000 elections, awoke and sounded the alarm that democracy was endangered with such strength that it forced the executive branch to change course. If this convergent democratic movement continues to grow, it will be able to promote truly democratic solutions. Only a strong civic movement will overcome the current discredited party-ocracy oblivious to anything but its own narrow interests and oblige the country to turn instead to solving the urgent needs of the majority.
The third has to do with the ability of the democratic convergence to prevent social tragedy. In this operation, the bipartite state committed hubris, that combination of excess and arrogance that inevitably leads to tragedy. But when it seemed that the government was on the verge of tearing the country apart, determined citizen action prevented the tragedy.
Winners and losersIn this course of events, there were clear losers: the powers that run the country, President Fox, his wife Martha Sahagún, Government Secretary Creel, former Attorney General Macedo, former Assistant Attorney General Vega, the president of the Supreme Court and the PRI and PAN leaders and representatives, with very few exceptions. Other losers include those who hoped that getting López Obrador out of the race would enhance their own presidential aspirations; the PAN’s Creel and the PRI’s Madrazo both saw their poll ratings drop in the aftermath of this adventure. After speaking out against Fox’s political solution, Madrazo lost five more points. Analysts predicted that both the PRI and the PAN would pay high political costs.
From the point of view of democracy, this was not a zero sum game; indeed, there were many winners. These included, of course, López Obrador and his party, since his participation in the elections is now guaranteed. López Obrador also became more widely known and accepted nationally, and his image and cause were favorably received at the international level. Fox, on the verge of going down in history as authoritarian and antidemocratic, also saved his image.
These two key figures in the conflict can learn lessons for the immediate future. Both Fox and López Obrador must have learned that people will not tolerate any kind of authoritarianism, don’t like it when people try to trick them, refuse to see the law being twisted, demand transparency and insist on being taken into account.
Clearly, the big winner was a civic movement that finally got a sense of its own potential. The majority of citizens who came out to demand respect for their rights and repudiate futile conflicts won. The emergence of a convergent civic and social movement capable of straightening the course and sustaining hope was a huge victory.
Jorge Alonso is a researcher with CIESAS Western and envío correspondent in Mexico.