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  Number 303 | Octubre 2006
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Mexico

An Unyielding Movement Challenges the Fraud

Mexico’s electoral fraud turned those from below into active, unyielding rebels. The powers that orchestrated the fraud have demanded that they submit, but to no avail. The whole institutional scaffolding of the transition to democracy has collapsed. Calderón will govern a divided, outraged and rebellious country.

Jorge Alonso

Ignacio Ramonet, the editor-in-chief of Le Monde Diplomatique, concluded that massive fraud had undeniably occurred in Mexico. His assessment was echoed by the French sociologist Loic Wacquant, who said Mexicans were protesting in the streets because the elections were marred by serious problems.

The evidence

Numerous witnesses have charged that most of the state campaign managers for the incumbent National Action Party (PAN) work in the government’s Social Development Office and got out the vote by illegally using the beneficiary lists from its programs. Others have accused the election institute of improperly moving the location of some polling places and posting pro-government officials at a number of them. President Vicente Fox spent nearly $200,000 of public money to support his candidate and trash his opponents in the campaign, a practice mimicked by many PAN state governors as well. The entire country witnessed how the PAN, in clear violation of the Constitution, engaged in a fierce and dirty media war, egged on by its foreign advisers. The turncoats in the teachers’ union worked for the PAN, while some businesspeople have been accused of buying and coercing votes.

Imaginatively and unresignedly

After all this, the powers that be tried, with the help of blatant media manipulation, to get Andrés Manual López Obrador and his followers to bow their heads and submissively accept the scandalous vote fraud. After triggering the conflict, they insisted that he keep quiet about it. As though defrauding the popular will were not enough, they complained because people refused to resign themselves to it. Their response to the crisis has been to step up their costly media campaign against those mobilizing against the results being imposed on them.

Despite the pressures, many different groups waged imaginative grassroots protests using novel forms of expression on the steps of businesses, banks and the largest television company, accusing their owners of helping to perpetrate out the fraud.

The demonstrators constantly reiterated the motives behind their peaceful, civic resistance: they were defending their votes and the country’s democracy by trying to prevent those who didn’t win the elections from being imposed on them. López Obrador, the Coalition for the Good of All’s presidential candidate, faced off against the powerful and privileged elite who rule the country and look on any alternative national project as unacceptable, even if neither manipulation nor the dirty war nor money were enough to put PAN candidate Felipe Calderón in office without fraud. People in the resistance movement have insisted on their obligation to defend democracy not only by demanding clean elections, but also by refusing to accept poverty, lack of employment, emigration, miserable wages, limited opportunities for young people to attend university, the approval of sales tax on food and medicine, and the privatization of social security and the electricity and oil industries.

Civic resistance: “Vote by vote”

The first step in this historic mobilization was to demand a recount. The official figures—widely seen as crooked—gave such a slight margin of victory to Calderón that if the votes were recounted, they would likely show that López Obrador had won.

The PAN and the Business Coordinating Council, the country’s leading business association, were opposed. López Obrador sent Calderón a letter asking him to agree to a recount because he had nothing to fear if he was sure of his victory. Calderón refused to accept this solution, as did the Electoral Tribunal, even though it would have reassured everyone. The Tribunal instead ordered that the votes be recounted in roughly half of the districts and in only 9% of their polling places. López Obrador replied that he could not accept “the decimation of democracy.” He also insisted that the movement would not limit itself to demanding a vote-by-vote recount in the wake of the fraud, but would press for a transformation of the institutions.

The Coalition for the Good of All, led by the Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD), charged that there were various kinds of anomalies in 72,000 of the ballot packets. Even the partial recount revealed an overall excess of 545,079 ballots in some packets and a 148,150 shortfall in others. The journal Proceso reported that such inconsistent tallies had been the rule rather than the exception, and that the PAN candidate tended to have fewer votes than attributed to him while López Obrador had more. Alianza Cívica noted that these irregularities were the product not of errors but of alterations. The bishop of Saltillo, Raúl Vera—who has long stood up for people’s rights—declared that the results of the partial recount justified the civic resistance.

The tribunal’s ruling: A “coup d’état”

After the hardly transparent partial recount, the Electoral Tribunal decided to annul a similar number of votes for both candidates, thus maintaining the 0.5% margin in Calderón’s favor. López Obrador described this ruling as a “coup d’état” and accused the tribunal of complicity in validating the fraud and supporting the criminals who were stealing the presidential elections. He declared that the institution had made a political rather than juridical decision, because it served the economic and political interests of a group of privileged people who had taken over the state apparatus. That same charge was made by the people in their huge demonstrations. As if in proof of the allegations, the tribunal refused to clean up the elections.

On its editorial page, The New York Times urged López Obrador to accept the tribunal’s decision, but granted that Calderón had been wrong to reject a full recount. The Financial Times argued that a recount would have been the best way to resolve such a serious conflict. The Washington-based Center for Economic and Policy Research did a sampling of the recounted polling places and found that the election results were “inexplicably biased.” The writer Carlos Montemayor commented that the Electoral Tribunal had opted for an arithmetic adjustment, without wanting to admit that the numerical errors were evidence of fraud.

Electoral tribunal:
Impunity and absurdity

Finally, on September 5, the Tribunal declared Calderón President-elect. It recognized that both Fox and the Business Coordinating Council had illegally intervened, but argued that it was impossible to determine the extent to which their actions had influenced the final results. The course the Tribunal took and the arguments it offered were more appropriate for resolving conflicts between individuals—as though this were a case of civil or commercial law—than for such a crucial issue involving the public interest and governed by electoral law. The Tribunal did not explain why it chose this course. Its treatment of polling places with too many or too few ballots was inconsistent, since in August it decreed such votes invalid and when they were decisive annulled the results of that polling place, then changed its criteria on September 5. How is it that the Tribunal saw something as a serious irregularity in August but not in September? Actions like this only increased people’s doubts about the election process, encouraged impunity and made the tribunal look ridiculous.

A strongly challenged resolution

After being declared president-elect, Calderón made a call for unity but López Obrador rejected it, saying that it was hard to accept the idea there would be no consequences for the dirty war Calderón had led, and accusing the Electoral Tribunal magistrates of validating the fraud. Eliasur Artega, a legal scholar from the Autonomous Metropolitan University, argued that the Tribunal had ignored the legal basis of the charges filed. Constitutional scholar Raúl Carrancá y Rivas agreed that the decision was unjust, while colleague Clemente Valdés called the tribunal’s arguments poor and even contradictory. Experts on media impact charged the Electoral Tribunal with ignoring the media’s irregular and uncontrolled participation in the presidential race, while former Tribunal member Jaime Cárdenas said its decision was rife with legal absurdities. The magistrates reviewed each point separately but failed to evaluate the whole, and thus had not assessed how the full set of irregularities had impacted the process. The Tribunal had also failed to examine the various stages in the process with the proper legal criteria, had not followed proper procedures and had issued a mere rebuke to the President and the Business Coordinating Council when it should have sanctioned them.

Other commentators argued that, with an average two-vote difference between the candidates per polling place and so many irregularities, the proper course should have been to annul the elections. Human rights organizations complained that the tribunal had not assessed the irregularities in depth, while farm workers’ organizations proclaimed that Calderón would be a legal but not legitimate President. The New York Times acknowledged that a significant part of the Mexican population believe fraud took place.

When the PAN talked about winning the decision, the PRD responded that this wasn’t the same as winning the elections. And although the PAN’s allies, the Mexican Bishops’ Conference and private enterprise applauded the ruling, the Tribunal’s actions aggravated the political crisis. Calderón had to arrive by helicopter to receive his certificate of election since people kept up their demonstration in front of the Tribunal’s offices. The magistrates’ decision not to consider mathematical mistakes in the record as evidence of fraud only fueled people’s distrust of the tribunal.

López Obrador speaks to a million, Calderón to only 30,000

While the Left argued that the Tribunal’s attitude was clearly biased and charged it with validating the coup against the democratic electoral system, the people kept up their civic rebellion. They flat refused to accept the wrapping of consummated illegal acts in legal arguments.

Former ambassador, congressional leader and PRD founder Porfirio Muñoz Ledo announced that he had reliable information from the highest level in the judicial branch that the Tribunal’s magistrates had met in the home of the Supreme Court president before reaching their decision, where they were reportedly treated to pressure from President Fox. Even after the president of the Supreme Court maintained that there was no proof that this meeting had taken place, Muñoz Ledo held his ground. He added that Fox had warned the magistrates that a failure to validate Calderón’s election would trigger capital flight and other negative consequences that would lead to economic collapse. This could explain why the magistrates recognized election violations but applied no legal sanctions.

While López Obrador protested before crowds of over a million, Calderón celebrated his certification before thirty thousand. He counterproductively punctuated his calls for dialogue with insults against those who had voted for his opponent. President Fox also kept up his inflammatory statements, inciting ill-will, while López Obrador called on his followers to resist such provocations.

Fox couldn’t read his report or launch Independence Day events

Mexico’s Presidents always make their annual report to the House of Representatives on September 1. For the many years of PRI rule, this was a day for the President to shine, and more recently an occasion to take jabs at the opposition. This year, anticipating that the event would be marked by huge demonstrations, the President, with the complicity of legislators in his party, ordered the army to surround the House of Representatives with tanks and a steel muralla, thus illegally placing a part of Mexico City under siege.

The PRD demanded that the legislative building be opened back up and announced it would attend the report as an aggrieved party. The predicted massive demonstration took place in the Zócalo, Mexico City’s famed central square. To avoid the possibility of bloody repression, people did not march to the House of Representatives, but PRD congress people took over the podium and prevented Fox from delivering his report. In a later televised message, Fox said the PRD had wronged Mexicans, to which the PRD responded that Fox was the wrongdoer. The media sharply criticized the PRD for not allowing the President to give his report. In reality, the PRD had simply put an end to an outdated rite of the ancien régime.

López Obrador’s followers had taken over the Zócalo and were still camped out there by September 15, the date of Mexico’s independence celebrations, when the President traditionally steps out onto the National Palace balcony overlooking the square to give the “cry of independence,” thus launching the evening’s festivities. López Obrador announced that he would be with the demonstrators in the square on that date. Fox, daring him, insisted that he would come out to give the cry. Many feared that the army would be used to repress the demonstration. In the end, Fox had to cede the square and announced that he would not participate in the celebrations in Mexico City.

After more than a month and a half of huge demonstrations in which not a single window had been broken, López Obrador called for an end to this form of protest and for the organization of a National Democratic Convention to take place in the Zócalo following the traditional Independence Day military parade.

López Obrador:
“Legitimate President”

On that day, over a million delegates from all over the country attended the National Democratic Convention. This new organization that has arisen in response to the electoral fraud has several aims. One component of the struggle relates to an effective fight against the country’s enormous poverty and inequality, because people are no longer willing to accept the control of the country’s wealth by a small minority while the vast majority of Mexicans cannot satisfy even their most indispensable needs. Another has to do with defense of the national patrimony, to prevent the continued privatization of public wealth. Another central demand is the public’s right to information. The convention participants also agreed to the need to fight corruption and impunity. Rejecting the model of a state that buys allegiance and a government that is no more than a committee at the service of a minority, they called for a drastic transformation of all state institutions.

In short, the convention became a forum for organizing continued peaceful, civic resistance. People understand that the path will be a long one. They proposed starting to put an end to the simulated republic by organizing a democratic dialogue for freedom, justice and democracy among the country’s various social, political, and cultural groups, and encouraging a discussion of the political crisis caused by the anti-democratic imposition. All this implies a revolution in people’s way of thinking.

When the assembly was asked whether it would prefer to appoint a coordinator of peaceful, civic resistance or name a “legitimate President,” the majority of hands went up for the second option, understanding that it would be López Obrador. Opposition to the idea of recognizing Calderón as President was virtually unanimously.

A show of hands?

There were also debates among the opponents of fraud at the convention. For example, philosopher Luis Villoro, argued that opposition from below is a long-term strategy, and criticized the method of reaching agreements by a show of hands in an assembly. Adolfo Gilly, a tried-and-true leftwing activist, argued that it was inconsistent to propose a government in rebellion while the PRD legislators accepted their congressional seats. Longtime PRD leader Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas, accepting the Tribunal’s decision without criticizing the election fraud, said that naming López Obrador as the legitimate President was a step backward in the path to democracy. He questioned the movement’s actions, apparently forgetting that repudiated rulers have been brought down by mass demonstrations. He also criticized López Obrador for having surrounded himself with onetime allies of former PRI President Salinas de Gortari, and said that an alternative project needs to be debated and approved over time, not simply rubber stamped in a public square.

The writer Elena Poniatowska said that fraud had indeed taken place and that people couldn’t just stand by with their arms folded. They were incited by the dirty war paid for by the country’s owners and felt that they were defending their dignity in response to an unjust election.

Between support and distrust

The parties that made up the Coalition for the Good of All decided to form a broad progressive front and register with the Electoral Tribunal as a coalition of leftist legislators. Magdalena Gómez, a lawyer, defended the convention’s legality, stating that the decision to name López Obrador as legitimate President was based in article 39 of the Constitution, which recognizes the people’s right to change their form of government.

López Obrador’s functions as legitimate President are also within the law because he’s leading the opposition to the usurpation and the decisions the spurious government will seek to take. and heading a peaceful movement to found what was described at the convention as a “new republic.” In response to the objection that the PRD legislators had taken their seats, several people noted that the legislature is an independent branch that does not form part of the illegitimate government.

People also raised other issues. For example, writer Guillermo Almeyra felt that a fundamental problem with the convention was that many of its members were there simply as followers of López Obrador. If the movement depends solely on the decisions and directions of him and his team, the capacity to attract millions of Mexicans who want social change but distrust López Obrador’s top-down leadership would be lost.

Another point had to do with sectarianism. Some argued that extensive nationwide discussions would be required to draft proposed solutions to the country’s serious problems, with thousands of forums to provide a channel for participation from below. Many called for the new movement to break out of the top-down leadership style.

In recent weeks, some have also noted that the people in this movement have been pushing the leader to increasingly radical positions. Although the government predicted that the protests would last no more than a couple of weeks, the new movement has proven its vitality as it takes shape as an anti-oligarchic coalition for institutional transformation. With the new government, we can soon expect to hear the demands of outsiders who encouraged the fraud and have been advocating for the privatization of the country’s considerable energy resources. One of the immediate steps to be taken by participants in the convention will be the defense of energy sovereignty.

Those from below: Active rebels

What the last PRI President was finally no longer able to do, the President of the so-called change in government did do: Fox imposed his successor through fraud. But he’s giving Calderón a divided, injured country immersed in massive protests. Despite the calls for dialogue, the hate-filled campaign has left deep wounds on political culture. The convention participants are convinced that the real powers of money, the media and the Catholic Church stole the elections from them. They say that Calderón will be simply a puppet of these powers, and urge López Obrador not to give in or compromise.

Those from below have become active rebels, in that neither Fox nor Calderón can participate in public events without incident. People have come to see the powers-that-be as their enemies and are ready to rein them in. These powers are insisting that they submit to the old institutions, but to no avail. The institutions have shown that they are untrustworthy and only serve those at the top.

In prior fights for democracy, solutions were found in the supposedly autonomous institutions. But the fraud of 2006 has shown that these institutions are biased and subject to the ruling powers. The whole institutional scaffolding of the transition to democracy has collapsed. The problem is that the country has taken such a big step backward that the promise that these institutions will once again function properly is no longer enough. Those from below want to rebuild another kind of democracy with other kinds of institutions.

A vital, ambitious movement

The movement that arose to challenge the fraudulent elections is gaining strength. Now it aims to create another country, from below. It has been criticized for its oppositional stance, but it’s not merely a struggle of repudiation. It is rather one that can explore problems and propose solutions. As the movement seemed to come close to what was being proposed earlier this year by the Zapatistas’ Other Campaign, Subcomandante Marcos once again chose to distance himself from it, insisting that the Other Campaign would not take the same course or share the same destiny as the protests led by López Obrador. And to those who thought that the two movements could come together, Marcos made it clear that he views the new mobilization with critical skepticism.

But currents from below tend to find their own channels and not necessarily keep to those marked out by their leaders. We mustn’t forget that such movements always contain the seed of an entropy that tends to wear them down, but history has also shown that grassroots movements arising from great wrongs can contain embers that light later movements for freedom.

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

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