Lost in a Labyrinth of Solitude: A Glimpse into the 2006 Mexican Presidential Election

The next six years of Mexican politics are to be heavily influenced, if not defined, by the July 2nd presidential elections.

Ruthless technical, political, and public relations tactics on the part of the Vicente Fox government and his National Action Party (PAN) are casting the campaign and the voting in a questionable light.  Such circumstances only accentuate worries concerning the historical fraudulent abuse of electoral processes and institutions in Mexico.  After decades of oppressive one party rule, and the resulting 2000 electorates turn to Fox and the right wing opposition as a means of deposing the one party dictatorship of the PRI, the Mexican left has embarked upon a search for national and regional identity, as well as made a concerted and serious run for the presidency.  This essay explores a variety of angles related to the election, and joins in the collective holding of breath in anticipation of what might emerge on the other side of this exercise in Mexican party politics. 

The presidential elections in Mexico are of great interest to Mexico’s regional and continental neighbors.  In the context of the series of important elections taking place in countries through out the Americas, the elections in México have tremendous relevance for the balance of power on the continent and the growing tide of interest in an alternative to the Washington Consensus. 

Social movements and left leaning administrations across the Americas are observant and curiously attentive to what the Mexican electorate will determine on Sunday July 2, the day of the election.  The difference between the strains of the socio-political left in México and the variety of leftist influenced politicians that have gained greater influence in Latin America as a whole demonstrates the diversity of leftist tendencies that exist through out the region.  It is impossible to paint the "Latin American left" with one brush.  Nevertheless, one element held in common is usually some degree of rejection of the so-called Washington Consensus, which is a common way of describing the neo-liberal model of free trade and privatization that the United States has so actively promoted and attempted to secure in the hemisphere.  From Bachelet of Chile, to Morales of Bolivia, to Kirchner of Argentina—though there are clear differences in quality and tendency, all share a questioning of assumptions and a shifting of weight away from having national and regional policy dictated by Washington.  

Unfortunately for México, escaping the Washington Consensus as Hugo Chavez of Venezuela or Lula from Brazil attempt to do, within the means available to them, is not bound to be easy.  Washington’s success in integrating and literally absorbing the Mexican economy and resources, both human and natural, into the economy of the United States, as well as in the complete co-optation of Mexico’s economic and political elite, has literally tied the destiny of the two nations together.  Not only is México the most distant Latin America nation from the heart of the region, it is the closest to the regional imperial power in geography and policy. 

Shamefully, with the United States increasingly dependent on the Mexican economy and energy resources and with Mexico increasingly dependent on cross border commerce and development assistance, Mexico has never been offered the preferential treatment by the US that a close ally should merit.  Neither has Mexico had leadership that speaks frankly about Mexico’s dependence on the US economy.  For instance, it is estimated that the equivalent of 6 percent of Mexico’s GDP is brought and sent to Mexico each year by immigrant workers in the United States, demonstrating the complexity of economic relations between the countries.  Such complete economic integration is not a road along which one can easily reverse direction.  Further more, how does one confront an important partner who acts as unilaterally and with the complete lack of respect as does the United States? 

In simple terms, México as a society is in a terribly desperate situation with the United States.  It is as though their northern neighbor was given all the keys to the southern house, but continues to behave as anything but the friend he purports to be, always coming by to raid the fridge, leaving the kitchen a mess and demanding that his own dishes get washed as well, for a pittance, and all the while holding an economic gun to Mexico’s head.  You would think Mexico could find better friends in the region than the United States, but the US has made itself the guest who cannot leave.  

This challenging relationship with the US handicaps Mexico’s left, hungry for power after years of abuse, manipulation, and exclusion by the one party government that ruled México for more than 70 years.  Unable to perceive how offices like the presidency might be attainable without making compromises with the northern empire, the centrist left attempts to promote a painless populism of placating US economic interests while pursuing status quo economic growth to bring benefits to the less privileged.  Meanwhile, the more radical elements, marginalized and choosing for the most part not to participate in national level electoral politics, are successful in organizing at the grassroots, yet still tend to grope at archaic concepts such as "seizing the means of production" through a "worker led social revolution." 

The provincial, exceedingly nationalistic, and increasingly out-of-date philosophy of much of Mexico’s radical left (Stalin has been a historical favorite amongst Mexican communists) appears to be unable to conceptualize how to collaborate effectively with the diversity of leftist movements in Latin America, much less idealize a national future beyond banishing their class war enemies into exile, sending the elite Mexican rich packing to live in Miami while the workers build a new Mexico.  This is the kind of radical posturing that only contributes to the banality of the political discourse in the time of the election.  Though, as to be described below, there are changes occurring in this old school communist culture, the pace of change and international adaptation accompanying the left’s ascendancy in the region appears to be isolating the radical elements in Mexico in their own subculture.  At the same time, the Mexican center-left distances itself from the regional leftist tendencies and leaders in order to facilitate it’s internal quest for presidential power, essentially abandoning a future center-left administration to a US dominated diplomatic solitude that harms more than helps Mexico’s search for regional identity.    

Mexico truly is an interesting case study of economic models in the Americas. Even with a heinous rash of privatization of state assets over the last ten years (i.e. telephone infrastructure and financial services), many valuable major industries are still nationalized—in other words, the means of production have already been taken by the state.  PEMEX, the ambiguously state-run petroleum industry, belongs to the Mexican federal government.  Actually, non-governmental organizations working on access to information issues estimate that a quantity of PEMEX’s petroleum that is the equivalent of 10 percent of the Mexican GDP is stolen in fraudulent deals every year.  Mexico is not a poor country, but it is rife with corruption and theft, a price paid largely by the roughly 70 million people who live near or below poverty wages, all the while contending with environmental problems of epic proportions, especially in terms of water.  Obviously, encountering inequality and corruption in Mexico is going to require much more than rallying around antiquities such as "seizing the means of production."  Is there a candidate or social movement who might actually change this situation?  Though there are probably as many skeptics as supporters, a large number of Mexicans believe that Lopez Obrador, the center-left candidate of the PRD who promises to put the poor first, might be capable of this change. 

Due to the seriousness of his candidacy, the Mexican media and the right wing ruling party have blatantly attacked Lopez Obrador for being the evil twin of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela.  This is a completely absurd accusation due to very different contextual and political makeup, as well as the Mexican center lefts purposeful and practical distance from the regional leftist movement.  Such misleading propaganda has a two pronged benefit for the Mexican right—it causes undiscerning mainstream voters to avoid Lopez Obrador, and it tactically convinces the Mexican center-left to distance itself from potentially like minded regional allies.  This lack of capacity to collaborate with regional leftist allies causes further confusion amongst voters in Mexico as they struggle to assimilate the limitations within which the Mexican people live, the unwillingness of political leaders to take substantial positions on the issues that affect their lives, and the ongoing effort to find a national and regional identity that can balance the less than ideal relationship with the United States.  

The conscious effort to slander Lopez Obrador and appeal to a vote of fear stands out amidst ongoing electoral irregularities that have given ever increasing influence to the Mexican mass media in determining the discourse in the lead up to the election.  All the major parties spend tremendous amounts of money on advertising and television spots.  Amongst the most famous of the contended television spots were those by the right wing PAN accusing Lopez Obrador of being a "danger" for Mexico, whether it be in false accusations of receiving campaign funds from Hugo Chavez or because of false charges of corruption during his time as mayor of Mexico City.  After two months of constant airtime, the spots were eventually deemed "inappropriate" by the electoral authorities and banned from transmission. 

The covert and overt use of government violence and the instigation of social strife to create tension and a sense of insecurity reached a peak in early May during the police attacks and events in San Salvador Atenco.  With ongoing police violence being utilized as a political and public relations tool, notably in the attempt to break a teachers strike in the center of Oaxaca in mid June, the media and the right wing continue to attempt to paint a picture of a Mexico on the verge of leftist chaos, regardless of the evidence demonstrating that the conflicts have been engineered as highly choreographed media and political actions with little regard for human rights by the highly questionable state and federal police forces involved in the operations.  

Regardless of the hidden agenda, or perhaps due to it, there can be no question that social violence and heavy handed police activities rattle and cloud the election climate.  There is a general aspiration to be as civilized as possible about the transfer of presidential power, yet history and the character of "anything goes" Mexican politics add a tangible degree of uncertainty to the election.  The actual rules of the election also lend themselves to a lack of social cohesion; the winner does not need a majority of 50 percent or more of the votes, as the candidate who gains the highest percentage of votes will simply become the winner, without needing to go to a second round run-off.  With three major candidates fighting it out with similar percentages of the vote, there is a sense of trepidation as to what might occur if no one of the candidates attains more than 40 percent of the vote, especially if the disenfranchised mass supporting the center-left candidate comes to the conclusion that they have been robbed of the presidency once again. 

Within this context, but solely in the interest of sending a media message of electoral normalcy to the national and international audience, the major Mexican political parties signed a "Pact of Civility" early on Tuesday June 13th as a sort of campaign promise to abide by government announced results of the elections.  Part of the pact is an agreement to not engineer major mobilizations to contest results from the presidential election.   One candidate, Roberto Campa of the lesser known New Alliance party, refused to sign the agreement, even though he had been instrumental in giving birth to the initiative.  Campa was quoted stating that "it is a mistake for parties to sign something that they know they are not going to abide by."  Nevertheless, the PRI (the formerly unrivaled ruling party), the PAN (National Action Party, the current ruling party), and the PRD (the Democratic Revolution Party, leading contender for being the next ruling party) have all signed the Democratic Accord for Equality, Legality, and Governance.  This agreement appears to essentially be a political gesture designed to reduce political party responsibility concerning potentially contested election results, and to add needed legitimacy to the weak and mistrusted IFE (Federal Elections Institute). 

The IFE has the mandate of overseeing both the electoral system, as well as the electoral process.  In this instance of Mexican electoral politics, the electoral system is the actual act of voting, as well as the tabulation and reporting of results.  This aspect of the election has been well anticipated and appears to be, according to national and international election observers, rather solid and technically reliable.  This is a far cry from the 1988 electoral fraud that included crashed tabulation computers and disappeared ballot boxes.  Observers from México, especially those from non-party affiliated civil society organizations and associations, have attempted to communicate to the national press and the international community that the issue with this year’s election is more with violations of the rule and spirit of the electoral process, with the resultant negative impacts on the election itself. 

Along with the "irregularities" mentioned above, concerns include the inappropriate insertion of President Fox in the campaign, the illegal use of official emails by Fox officials to distribute negative and even false information concerning the PRD candidate, and the threat of cutting off of social assistance finance to rural communities benefiting from Fox programs, which is in itself a variety of the old school Mexican political stand by of buying and coercing votes out of communities dependent to some degree on party favors. These tricks are ostensibly relics of the one-party rule past.  As well, observers have decried the complicity of the mass media and the major candidates in the banal content of their spots, and the total avoidance of real discussion of the issues that afflict this diverse and fascinating country.  The tone of the campaign is such that one does not wonder if there will be any interest in the transparency, quality, and results of the election, but if there will be any interest at all.  Nevertheless, some 40 plus million voters are expected to turn out.  

The Mexican electorate itself has important demographic characteristics that will influence their tendencies in voting behavior and potential reaction in case of contested results.  One of the primary reasons why the PRD has such a good chance to win the presidency is due to their influence in Mexico City, with the highest concentration of voters in the country.  Outside of Mexico City, in the provinces and especially in more remote areas of the countryside, the voters are much more subject to the whims of the party that has local and state power.  It is in these areas that irregularities concerning bought votes or threats to cut off future aid tend to abound. 

Another important sector of voters is the millions of Mexicans who are living in the United States.  It is possible for Mexicans to vote for the president of Mexico in 2006 while residing in the United States.  It is estimated that some 7 million voters are in the United States alone, and their paper votes must arrive to Mexico by July 1.  Contributing to the irregularities noted yet hardly regulated by the IFE was a recent tour of Vicente Fox through Utah, Idaho, and California, trumpeting the superficial successes of his government and party before the Mexican constituency in the United States.  Fox attempted to ride the wave of the Senate approval of a compromised immigration bill, though it’s cold reception in the conservative US House showed not only the shallowness of Fox’s claimed victory but revealed his ignorance of the legal process in the United States.   

Regardless of Fox’s continued clumsiness, the recent move on winning over Mexican voters living in the United States fits with the realpolitik approach of his PAN party.  There is little arguing about the significance of millions of voters in a race that could be determined by less than 2 or 3 percentage points, and thus far the major media and the Fox government are the only ones with much access to voters residing in the US.   

Such is the cutthroat nature of the maneuvering and positioning of the political class in Mexico—there is far more than just the presidency at play, and every trick in the book is being implemented to gain these vaunted and traditionally lucrative positions.  One of the particularly Mexican elements of party politics is the fluidity with which candidates and personalities have begun to move from one party to another.  On a state level, in places such as remote Chiapas, the PRD has managed to present candidates that have previously been militants in the PRI, without any prior involvement of local PRD activists.  There are several cases of movement between the PRI and PAN.  These actions have cast the opportunist and self-interested actions of career politicians into the perpetual distrust of the people, contributing to the lack of interest amongst many Mexicans in this year’s election. 

This cross party mobility and back room negotiating has frustrated voters, journalists and others who have attempted to gain information about who exactly are the people that are striving for national congress and state public offices across Mexico.  Election observers have repeatedly asked that the parties facilitate the publication of biographies of all of their candidates, including academic, professional, political, and even criminal backgrounds, without any success.  There are numerous elections in which a voter cannot ascertain as to how long a candidate has lived in their state or has been a member of the party they represent.  Many party activists have had little or no opportunity to participate in processes for candidate selection. To this day, the parties, under the less than authoritative eye of the IFE, have failed to distribute materials to appropriately inform the voting public about all of their candidates and the in-party processes for candidate selection.  This obfuscation by all of the major political parties of selection methods and the quality, history, and agenda of many of the personalities who will be assuming public office is the type of irregularity that casts serious doubt on the democratic qualities of the electoral process in Mexico.    

At the very least, due to the attention put on the national campaign, there is plenty of information available about the presidential candidates.  Though there are many candidates for the presidency, there are only a few that have been presenting serious campaigns.  Also of relevance in this sense are political players who are openly questioning the political process, most notably the Zapatista spokesperson Delegado Zero—formerly known as Subcomandante Marcos.  Though Marcos is certainly not a candidate for the presidency, regardless of behavior and activity that is remarkably similar to a typical politician in a campaign, there is no question that Marcos has helped shape the debate over what will be the future of Mexico as a result of the current political events in Mexico.   

Of the more or less 5 hopefuls for the presidency, the electoral contest has come down to the two leaders as mentioned above, Lopez Obrador of the PRD, and Calderon of the PAN.  The winner of this election will be president of Mexico for the next six years.  Which ever of these personalities that manages to win the presidency will also have tremendous influence on the short and long term prospects of the country.  In the run-up to the election it is certainly worth embarking upon a brief although less than authoritative exploration of each candidate’s history and positions. 

The center-left candidate who has been causing so much internal furor has the full name of Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador.  Lopez Obrador is also known as AMLO for his initials, or el peje—which is actually a type of fish, a nickname intended to recognize AMLO’s rural roots from a fishing community on the coast of the state of Tabasco.  As the candidate of the center left coalition, he represents the organized lefts best chance to arrive to the presidency in México.  He is a long time PRD (Democratic Revolution Party) militant, and managed to survive the aftermath and repression of his party that was a result of the PRI electoral fraud in 1988.  He was a candidate for governor in the state of Tabasco in 1996, running against the same Roberto Madrazo of the PRI party this year.  As a long time candidate for the presidency in 2006, AMLO left his post as the mayor of the Federal District in Mexico City after surviving, and capitalizing on, the ill intended effort of the desafuero, the Fox led attempt to press corruption charges against AMLO and therefore prevent AMLO from running for president.  AMLO’s time as mayor in DF was notable for a growth in eye catching public works such as the infamous segundo piso freeway, as well as a complete absence of tangible progress on the critical issues facing the Valley of Mexico in terms of water and environmental health.  The lack of sincere engagement on the part of AMLO’s administration to facilitate the passage and implementation of new and far-reaching laws concerning access to public governmental information reveals large contradictions (and mafia connections) in an ostensibly progressive and even leftist political philosophy.  Though AMLO does represent a potentially huge shift in the capacity of the federal government to respond to the marginalized and lesser privileged sectors of society, there is less evidence that his style would be nothing less than messianic, and that the true challenges of creating sustainability for Mexico would not be addressed. 

Felipe Calderon is the candidate for the PAN (National Action Party) and is widely accepted to represent the most conservative social forces in Mexico.  Clearly Pro-Life he has also made security and fighting crime one of his big campaign issues.  Unable to get larger scale public traction on these issues, Calderon has pursued a communications strategy based on fear in order to damage AMLO’s campaign.  Putting aside the ethics of the means by which he is campaigning, it appears that Calderon has become a serious contender in a race that was considered to be locked up by AMLO and the PRD.  Interestingly enough, Calderon was brought up in a family of PANistas, but after serving many years as an important party official his father quit the party in 1982, due to what he described as the parties’ total cooptation by the Mexican business class.  Recently, the Calderon has been implicated in providing juicy contracts for his brother-in-law while serving as the Secretary of Energy in the Fox government.   

The candidate for the Alliance for Mexico of the PRI (Institutional Revolution Party) and the PVEM (the "green" party of Mexico, perhaps the biggest laughing stock of green ecology politics on the global political stage) is Roberto Madrazo. Madrazo successfully vied with AMLO for the governorship of the State of Tabasco in 1996.  AMLO and Madrazo are sworn political rivals, if not enemies—at least when it is convenient.  Madrazo and AMLO have faced off on a number of occasions over the years, with Madrazo having to make numerous concessions to AMLO as a social movement leader.  It is said that Madrazo spent more for his 1996 campaign against AMLO to be governor of Tabasco than Bill Clinton spent in his victorious US presidential campaign the same year.  For the duration of this election Madrazo has held steady with nearly 30 percent of the polls, a sign of the extent of his PRI political machine and the last organized efforts of the faltering party.  When Madrazo loses, it is hypothesized that the PRI may cease to exist as a relevant political institution, perhaps a fitting end for the one party dictatorship.   

Roberto Campa is the candidate of the New Alliance party.  Campa is essentially a PRI defector who continues to threaten to be able to play off a spoiler role—though he can’t quite seem to muster the support to be able to pull off that very goal.  Campa made the news with his questioning of Roberto Madrazo’s apartments and properties in the United States for which he pays no taxes and can no show no record of income providing for the assets to make such purchases—essentially painting Madrazo as the narco-candidate of preference for the major Mexican drug cartels.  Though such accusations may be true, the role of narco influence in this campaign and Mexican politics is far more complex.  Campa is a fringe candidate who provides scandalous reality checks and the occasional chuckle as part of the surreal drama of Mexican political campaigns. 

As candidate of the Democratic Alternative (patriciamercado.org), Patricia Mercado is potentially the most articulate of all the candidates when it comes to the issues of human rights, environmental protection, and a true sustainable development for a complex country such as México.  She is something of a well traveled Latina version of Ralph Nader—articulate, aware, and a welcome voice for bringing the election discourse around to real issues.  She is a self-described izquierdista (leftist), a stance that AMLO tends to avoid as he gets closer to being vetted for the presidency by major economic interests in México and the United States.  Mercado is an openly feminist candidate, in a political arena where the environment continues to be hostile for women.  Ultimately, many potentially progressive voters may have to vote for who they prefer to see win between AMLO and Calderon; Mercado will probably not come home with a significant percentage of the vote. 

There is another political personality who is not running for office but who has had the role of being a lonely spoiler on the left, especially due to the shadow of Atenco.  Even though many Mexico City newspaper columnists have attempted to tritely play off the effort of Delegado Zero to raise the level of discourse in the times of election, the dark stain of the police violence in Atenco and the immature behavior of the major candidates has underlined the crisis in Mexican politics that the Zapatista spokesperson has been discussing with communities through out Mexico during the La Otra Campaña—the Other Campaign.  The Other Campaign has played an important role in encouraging individuals to organize in a collective manner so that the day to day issues of the poor in Mexico might be identified, discussed, and most importantly, resolved. 

As much as La Otra does represent an alternative, a rooted and impassioned resistance, and a participatory process, the Other Campaign has also found itself alone in the labyrinth of the Mexican left.  In popular terms, the reach and breadth of the Zapatista led movement is far less extensive than it was during the 2000 tour.  As effective as the 2006 Other Campaign has been in providing a burst of fresh air for isolated and threatened communities across the length of México, it took the violence of Atenco to provide Marcos with the same level of national attention that the Zapatista nurtured during their first caravan in 2001, or even during the election of 1994.  In that year Mexico and the world spun from the repercussions of the Chiapas rebellion and the subsequent repression, only to be further shaken by the assassination of Colosio, the anointed PRI candidate, in northern Baja California. These events were used in 1994 to create a climate of fear very similar to the environment in which Mexico now carries as a burden in the current campaign.  In this sense, the Zapatista movement has become a regular and even predictable element for political media during an election year in Mexico. 

Looking positively at events of this year, the Other Campaign has successfully engendered sincere discussion at a grass roots level as to how culturally diverse and geographically distant communities with remarkably similar concerns might integrate their vision and their struggles into one movement.  Though the Otra has canceled all travel activities outside of Mexico City in order to organize full time on securing the release of political prisoners held since the Atenco events, their influence has given great inspiration to many organizations to respond to the needs of sister organizations in varied locales across the country.  This current tendency is a direct break with the geographic and political isolation that has marked many previous leftist associations in Mexico.   As far as the 2006 election goes, one very important spoiler aspect of La Otra is the very real possibility that adherents and sympathizers may abandon participating in the election, deciding against voting for the marginally acceptable, according the radical Mexican left, Lopez Obrador.  In this sense, the fractured Mexican left could contribute inadvertently (or advertently, depending on the faction) to the victory of the rightist Calderon. 

The violence in Atenco has cast a grim shadow on the campaign.  A significant number of Mexicans actively sympathize with this organized community that was targeted by the guerra sucia (dirty war) of the Fox government.  The entire country was able to see how the federal government functioned in complicity with the other major political parties at the state and municipal level, and how the community was subsequently abandoned by all of the major presidential candidates.  A clear example of the abandonment was the immediate distancing of AMLO from the people in Atenco, before details concerning the police violence and sexual abuse were revealed.  The very least AMLO could have done to demonstrate a degree of presidential even handedness was to demand to know more details before taking a public position.  Mexico now lives more vividly than ever with the clear doubt that anyone of the men who might become president of their country would truly attempt to change the way that marginalized Mexicans are treated by the political class and law enforcement institutions.  This is the grand skepticism that underlies Mexico’s economic inequality and related environmental and population crisis.  Even with political changes, the actual day to day realities continue to stay the same.   

Underneath all of the discussion and anticipation of the upcoming election is the searing concern that without extreme caution there is the possibility of a rupture of the Mexican social fabric.  If the election, its system and process, are called into question and a sizeable percentage of the electorate decides that they have been defrauded, there may be a decided fracture in the country’s fragile social peace.  This time around though, the theft of the election may not be attributed to the burning of ballots as much as to the creation of a soap opera scandal political circus climate that disgusts the populace and discourages participation on the day of voting.  In these terms, and by measuring the trajectory of social movements on the rise in Mexico, it does not seem that a questionable election is the only trigger for social upheaval.  Perhaps there will be a moment to let out a brief sigh of relief if the election contributes to a civilized and tranquil transfer of presidential power.  Nevertheless, without real change that benefits the broader reach of the Mexican people and that helps create a national and regional identity which perceives a positive future for the country and the region, the pressure in the pot will continue to build until Mexico finally does boil over.  Though Mexico may live alone politically in a species of solitude, there is no question that the boiling over of social tensions in Mexico will have regional ramifications.  Heading towards the first weekend of July, and looking beyond, everyone is starting to hold their breath, in both a sort of fascinated trepidation as to what surprises the Mexican election labyrinth will unveil, and as to what the post-election dynamics will create not only in Mexico, but regionally.  

Credit goes to Octavio Paz for the title.  The author is currently in Northern California after nearly two years of work and travel in Chile, Argentina, Ecuador, Brazil, and México, not simply in that order.  Payment for this article was returned to www.UpsideDownWorld.org to further the distribution of the website.