The Mexican Election and the Split on the Left

According to the Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development, Mexico’s considerable income gap is widening while the National Council of the Evaluation of Social Development Policy reports that 3.2 million more Mexicans have been plunged into poverty in the last three years; a striking commentary on the economic policies of right-wing, pro-US President Felipe Calderón.

Recent studies by the National Council of the Evaluation of Social Development Policy (CONEVAL) and the Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD) again give lie to the myth that the neoliberal era in Mexico has led to greater prosperity and equality. On the contrary, according to the OECD, Mexico’s considerable income gap is widening while CONEVAL reports that 3.2 million more Mexicans have been plunged into poverty in the last three years; a striking commentary on the economic policies of right-wing, pro-US President Felipe Calderón.

The favorite to win this year’s crucial election is still Enrique Peña Nieto, the much-hyped fresh face of the country’s former ruling dynasty; the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). Often referred to as “the dinosaur” for the way it clung to power for 71 years, the PRI was notorious for corruption and political repression but has gained significantly from the National Action Party (PAN)’s tumble in popularity. It’s widely acknowledged, however, that the man really pulling the strings of Peña Nieto’s bid is Carlos Salinas de Gortari; the much-maligned former president (1988-1994) who signed the NAFTA agreement and was repeatedly linked to organized crime.   

Felipe Calderón’s PAN will attempt to retain power through Josefina Vázquez Mota, the first ever female candidate for a major Mexican party. The PAN is a socially-conservative outfit with links to extreme right-wing elements of the Mexican Catholic Church. Poverty and unemployment have increased during its twelve years in charge, although its enduring legacy will be the tragically misjudged “Drug War”, which has left over 50,000 victims in its wake.

Despite the foundation of a serious, progressive alternative, the Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD), in 1989, the Left has never won a free election in Mexico. It came agonizingly close in the country’s last presidential race in 2006, with Andrés Manuel López Obrador losing by just 0.56% of the vote; amid widespread allegations of fraud against Felipe Calderón. The PRD has held Mexico City – the beating heart of the country’s progressive politics – since 1997.

Although over half of Mexico’s population lives in poverty (at least 55 million people) – with an estimated 12% in extreme poverty – it’s always been rare for the various interests of the Mexican Left to unite behind one candidate. López Obrador (widely referred to as “AMLO”), who will run for the PRD again this year, draws his key support from the urbanized working-class; particularly in central and southern Mexico, and especially the capital.

Middle-class progressives tend to prefer Marcelo Ebrard, current Mexico City mayor and a more moderate, airbrushed face of the Left. Ebrard is the man who AMLO edged out for the PRD nomination, ending (for now, at least) a long dispute within the PRD between AMLO’s so-called “radical” element and the Nueva Izquierda (“New Left”) faction headed by Ebrard, PRD founder Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas, and party president Jesús Zambrano.

In reality, AMLO’s “radicalism” was all in his fiery, anti-imperialist rhetoric; his actual policies were social democratic at worst. But given the way that such rhetoric ruffled feathers six years ago, his 2012 campaign looks set to be a far more cautious affair; courting the mainstream media, dropping the phrase “mafia of power” (used to describe the PAN-PRI hegemony) from his speeches, and making visits to the US and Spain to reassure investors that a “left-wing” Mexico would still be open for business.

Whatever one may think of AMLO’s style as a politician, he has rarely changed his stance on key issues and often deliberately taken views that are unpopular. In 2006, he left office as Mexico City mayor with an 80% approval rating, and his record in tackling poverty, crime and inequality in the capital was praised by both Left and Right.

Yet although AMLO has fought for progressive governance in Mexico for nearly three decades – as a PRI dissident; as mayor of Mexico City; twice as presidential candidate – he has routinely failed to win the support of key figures on the Mexican Left. In 2006, the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) ran a counter-campaign (La Otra Campaña, or “The Other Campaign”) urging supporters of the Chiapas-based rebels not to vote for any party. Given the Zapatistas’ support among indigenous communities and young radicals, there’s still a debate as to whether the group’s campaign helped cost AMLO the presidency.

The current (reluctant) figurehead of civil resistance in Mexico is Javier Sicilia, a poet and journalist from Cuernavaca, Morelos, who took up activism after his son became an innocent victim of drug gang violence last year. Sicilia organized a massive march on Mexico City’s Zócalo square on May 8th, drawing some 20,000 supporters, and became a powerful yet media-friendly (i.e. well-spoken and middle-class) critic of President Calderón’s militarization of the “war on drugs”. Many other voices had been ignored or silenced.

With the death toll of Calderón’s “war” hovering between 50,000-60,000 people in five years, there has been considerable public support for Sicilia’s movement – known interchangeably as El Movimiento por La Paz (“Movement for Peace”) and No Más Sangre (“No More Blood”) – and its criticism of both the ruthless drug lords and the government crackdown. Without a doubt, lack of public security will be a key issue on the minds of voters heading to the polls in July.

Yet AMLO’s call for Sicilia and other members of the Peace Movement to join a leftist coalition for 2012 has fallen on deaf ears. Sicilia appeared on national television in January to declare the forthcoming elections a “sham” and vowed to spoil his ballot. Given the influence that he currently wields – particularly among the young, who are growing up in fear of violence – AMLO responded that Sicilia was “playing into the hands of the right wing” and essentially handing votes to the PRI’s Peña Nieto.

In Mexico, the Left starts with a handicap at the best of times; widely excluded from the mainstream by a corporate media long tied to the PAN/PRI elite. There is also the fact that, in its 23-year history, the PRD has never governed at the federal level, and the challenges facing the country – from poverty to the influence of powerful drug-trafficking organizations – are grave.

With campaigning officially set to begin on March 31st, most polls currently have AMLO’s coalition – comprising the Workers’ Party (PT) and other smaller parties – in third place. It could be that it’s too late; that the infighting within the PRD in recent years, its lack of experience, and public fear over gang violence are too much for people to trust in an untested, “leftist” party. But the lack of unity among influential voices on the Left undoubtedly hurts its cause and will more than likely see the PAN or PRI emerge victorious in July.

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