When Vicente Fox ended the 71-year reign of Mexico’s Institutional Revolutionary Party in the 2000 presidential elections, many observers heralded it as the beginning of a long-overdue transition to democracy. Now President Fox, in a concerted effort with members of the former ruling party, has closed the door on that transition.
By orchestrating a pseudo-legal offensive against Mexico City’s popular mayor, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, Fox has not only dashed the hopes of Mexicans for a real democracy, but has also destroyed the political capital he gained back in 2000.
Hundreds of thousands of people gathered in Mexico City’s central square to protest Congress’s decision to strip López Obrador of immunity to prosecution granted elected officials. The mayor will now stand trial for allegedly failing to follow a court order to halt work on an access road to a local hospital. According to the federal attorney general’s office, the government will likely put López Obrador behind bars, as a "preventive measure," before the trial even starts.
According to the vast majority of Mexicans, the government really aims to prevent López Obrador from becoming an official candidate in the 2006 electoral contest. He currently holds a 15% advantage in preference polls.
Although Fox claims that his government’s decision to prosecute is based on legal grounds and that "no-one should be above the law," the specifics of the case have left few doubts that the prosecution is politically motivated. There is evidence indicating that the Mexico City government was not at fault. Even if it were, it is highly unusual to indict a mayor for infractions by city government officials–much less impeach him based on a minor charge.
In his speech to followers before defending himself in Congress, López Obrador formally declared that he will seek the candidacy of his party, the Party of the Democratic Revolution "from wherever I am." With his announcement, it became official that the legal persecution of the mayor not only removes a popularly elected official from office but also serves to sideline the opposition frontrunner on a technicality.
The mayor announced the formation of a "broad movement for transformation" to promote not only his defense but also his alternative platform. That platform directly criticizes the government’s economic policies and calls for more social spending and political reforms. López Obrador’s platform of reducing economic inequality–with "First, the Poor" as his slogan–resonates amply in this nation of billionaires and beggars.
He also announced plans to appeal to international human rights groups to fight what he called this "huge step backward for Mexican democracy." Among the protest crowd in Mexico City’s central plaza, the sense of betrayal by a government elected to usher in the transition to democracy was palpable. Effigies of the president drew boos and whistles. Comments and hand-painted signs supporting Lopez Obrador reflected an unusual mixture of indignation and idolatry, with emotions running high.
It could easily be a volatile mixture. But the mayor’s message to his supporters was to maintain calm and avoid being provoked to violence. "We are the majority," he told the crowd. "Only those who are in the wrong resort to force."
What happens next is anyone’s guess. Even the legal implications of the vote are unclear.
What is clear is that President Fox and the country’s ruling parties–PAN and PRI–have plunged the country into political crisis for their own gain. The elections of 2000 offered a promise to consolidate democratic institutions after one-party rule. Some progress had been made. But if the democratic process is manipulated for political ends by those in power, then the promise of transition is betrayed.
Wall Street firms and financial experts had warned Mexican politicians against prosecution of the mayor. No friends of what they see as a populist politician, the main fear is that the maneuver will backfire.
Famed for his austerity and personal integrity, the mantle of political martyr is one that sits well on López Obrador’s shoulders. From prison, his case could burgeon into a symbol of all that’s wrong with Mexico today, greatly enhancing his popularity and his prospects for the presidency.
In a best-case scenario, a real grassroots movement to defend democracy and popular will could lead to long-needed political reforms in Mexico. This will depend on the capacity of the opposition movement to preserve peaceful and democratic means–and on the response of a government whose most recent actions demonstrate irresponsibility and a profound lack of statesmanship.
LAURA CARLSEN is Director of the Americas Program for Interhemispheric Resource Center. She holds a BA in Social Thought and Institutions (1980) from Stanford University and an MA in Latin American Studies (1986) from Stanford. She received a Fulbright Scholarship to study the impact of the Mexican economic crisis on women in 1986 and has since lived in Mexico City. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org