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Lights, Cameras, Money!

Mexican Elections Roll into Action

by PAUL IMISON

Mexico City

Let’s all praise democracy! Until twelve years ago, Mexicans had to bite their collective tongue while each crooked Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) president appointed his successor via the “dedazo” – or big finger-point. But this is the 21st century and the long-suffering population south of the border can now enjoy a souped-up, billion-dollar “democratic” election – scheduled for July 1 —  like the rest of us. It’s not even that complicated.

Ask Barack Obama. The Washington Post recently reported on a sun-kissed Cancun shindig where the US president’s 2008 campaign team flew in to share its secrets with strategists from Mexico’s top parties. “It’s an export business,” Tom Edmonds, head of the International Association of Political Consultants, bragged to the paper. “We are imprinting our way of doing things on countries around the world.” Admission was US$900 per head.

The candidates fighting for the keys to Los Pinos (the Mexican White House) are right-winger Josefina Vazquez Mota of the incumbent National Action Party (PAN) – Mexico’s first major female presidential hopeful – leftist Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador of the Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD) – who narrowly lost to President Felipe Calderon in 2006 – and Enrique Pena Nieto of the PRI; the country’s former 71-year ruling dynasty.

Some guy called Gabriel Quadri de la Torre of the embarrassingly-opportunistic teachers’ union-cum-political outfit New Alliance (PANAL) is also in the fray, though barely. His recent comment before an indigenous community that “Mexicans should stop running ourselves down; we’re all middle-class” should see his non-existent hopes sunk even further. PANAL is widely regarded as a vanity project of the teaching union’s “leader-for-life” Elba Esther Gordillo.

The unfortunate souls entrusted with refereeing this slugfest are the men and women of Mexico’s Federal Electoral Institute (IFE). After the disputed 2006 race, which involved a blatant “dirty war” by Felipe Calderon’s business-oriented PAN against the popular Lopez Obrador, IFE has imposed strict rules on just what goes in 2012. Parties can no longer buy TV spots (the corporate media is devastated), candidates have a spending cap of 336 million pesos (US$25.6 million), and negative campaigning, as a whole, is banned.

It’s banned everywhere except the Internet, of course. Yes, this is Mexico’s first fully-Facebooked, YouTubed and tweeted election. Only one-in-three citizens have frequent access but social networking is huge among the nearly 40 per cent of the electorate aged between 18 and 30. The resulting “Internet war” has been dirty enough in itself. In a digital-age twist to the PRI’s legendary electoral trickery, Pena Nieto was recently accused of faking his number of Twitter followers via “ghost accounts”.

The Dinosaur Awakes

Long groomed to be the fresh face of the party known as “the dinosaur”, Enrique Pena Nieto has been sitting pretty atop the polls for months now, heavily-championed by Mexico’s largest TV and media company, Televisa, which the PRI de facto founded in the 1950s. Not the sharpest knife in the drawer – he typically stumbles when speaking off-script – many say that a Pena Nieto administration would be little more than a second term for deeply unpopular former president Carlos Salinas de Gortari; he of NAFTA, 1994 peso crisis and (allegedly) Gulf Cartel fame.

The PRI is, of course, the monolithic political organization that took power in the wake of the Mexican Revolution (1910-17) and held on stoutly for 71 years. While the party brands itself as “center-left” and remains a member of the Socialist International, it grew increasingly corrupt and repressive as the 20th century wore on, waging a lethal “dirty war” in the 1970s and exorcising the ghosts of the Revolution with the neoliberal reforms of the ‘80s and ‘90s.

The million-dollar question is why Mexicans would willingly re-elect the party that misgoverned them – often brutally – for seven decades. The PRI’s stroke of genius was to unofficially name Pena Nieto as its candidate as far back as five years ago; the former state governor’s pop idol looks and marriage to actress Angelica Rivera granting him airtime and column inches beyond a campaign team’s wildest dreams. Secondly, disillusionment with the PAN on account of rising unemployment, inflation and gang violence has persuaded many Mexicans that they were genuinely better off under the T. Rex.

The death of one of Mexico’s former PRI presidents, Miguel de la Madrid, on March 31st was poetic in its timing. De la Madrid was the first of the country’s so-called “Ivy League presidents” – a string of Harvard and Yale graduates (Vicente Fox is the one exception) who helped construct and who continue to defend the neoliberal era. In office from 1982-88, De la Madrid kicked off a phase of Mexican history that has seen millions plunged back into poverty, the notorious “drug cartels” grow in influence, and the country fall behind other major Latin American nations in social development. It would be beyond irony if three short months after his death, the NAFTA-era PRI he created were to retake power.

Follow That, Josefina

Currently second in most of the polls, the PAN’s Josefina Vazquez Mota has the unenviable task of convincing Mexicans that the same party that has driven so many back into the hands of the PRI can turn this wayward ship around. Arguably her greatest advantage is that she wasn’t the pick of much-maligned President Calderon – to ram the point home, her one-word campaign slogan is “Different”. Yet she’s actually cut from very much the same cloth: pro-free trade, pro-the use of the military in the country’s “Drug War”, socially-conservative, and with ties to far-right elements of the Catholic Church.

Undoubtedly the US preference because of the PAN’s devout faith in the Washington Consensus, Vazquez Mota – a former Public Education and Social Development Minister – is often tarnished with the label of “inexperienced”. She had her own Pena Nieto-style gaffe last month when she told a university audience “I’m not perfect; I studied at the Iberoamericana” (a perfectly fine private university) and ran down the highly-respected National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) – a hotbed of left-wing activism – as “a monster” (she needn’t worry; no self-respecting UNAM alumnus would vote for her anyway).

Sadly, Vazquez Mota also has to overcome the plain disadvantage of being female in what’s widely perceived as a man’s man’s game. Speaking at a conference during the first week of campaigning, she suffered a dizzy spell – later blamed on the ‘flu – and had to finish her speech sitting down; an incident that will not help dispel the notion in “macho” Mexico that a woman is not up to the job of leading the country. Yet the PAN isn’t stupid; this year, women account for 51.86 per cent of registered voters.

While Vazquez Mota is being marketed as a fresh alternative, the reality is that after dislodging the PRI in 2000, the PAN simply continued with the same neoliberal policies and lackluster social programs that saw “the dinosaur” voted out in the first place. Generally perceived as more democratic and less corrupt than the PRI – whether it’s true or not is open to question – the PAN’s downfall will likely be President Calderon’s disastrous “war” on the drug trade that has exacerbated Mexico’s gang violence and left around 50,000 dead since 2006.

Don’t Mention the Left   

The candidate of the Left is once again Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (AMLO) of the PRD, heading a coalition of parties known as the “Progressive Movement”. After losing to Felipe Calderon by less than 1 per cent of the vote in 2006, AMLO accused the PAN of fraud and his more die-hard supporters occupied Mexico City’s Reforma Avenue (peacefully) for two months straight, demanding a recount that never came. In the intervening years, AMLO has also had to combat dissent within his own party from a faction called “the New Left”, which seeks to pull the PRD over to the center.

While he’s a pure social democrat, in 2006, corporate media on both sides of the border sought to portray AMLO as a dangerous radical in the Chavez mould. To avoid a similar fate this year, he’s running a notably less provocative campaign – cue TV spots with plain backgrounds in which a sober-looking AMLO offers his “frank hand” to the Mexican people. Among his intended policies, he calls for an end to rampant privatization, greater investment in domestic industry and agriculture (essentially the renegotiation of NAFTA), protection for the informal sector – in which more than half of Mexicans make their living – and increased subsidies for the poor.

For all his new-found restraint, AMLO still scares the hell out of Mexican elites who have long been accustomed to pillaging the country’s considerable wealth while the vast majority of the population goes without. Thanks to the IFE reforms, the “dirty campaign” of 2006 is being waged more subtly this time – the media trying to paint the election as a two-horse race in which the leftist candidate is simply irrelevant; a well-intentioned relic of Mexico’s revolutionary past. Yet for the more than 50 per cent of Mexicans who live in poverty (12 per cent of those in dire poverty), he’s the only candidate whose policies remotely challenge the status quo.

The PRD has never held power at the national level (it was founded following the PRI’s fraudulent election victory of 1988) and is generally viewed as the least corrupt of the country’s three major parties. But a widely-held belief is that AMLO’s chance to become president has come and gone; that there will be a shift to the Left only when the PRD runs a less divisive candidate, such as Mexico City mayor Marcelo Ebrard – a strong possibility in 2018. The other question is just how successful AMLO would be in pushing through much-needed reforms when there are forces even within the PRD that oppose him.

There’s plenty at stake. The Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD) reports that Mexico has the largest income gap of any major Latin American economy. Poverty has gradually increased over twelve years of PAN governance; a further 3 million Mexicans were plunged into poverty in the last three years alone. 8 million young people are without work or training and millions have been displaced on account of both gang violence and the very same neoliberal policies that the PAN and PRI candidates continue to back.

Without question, the 800-pound gorilla lurking behind the election is the ongoing insecurity afflicting the country on account of the warring drug cartels. With public support for Felipe Calderon’s militarized crackdown fading fast, all four candidates have argued for a fresh strategy, citing education, job creation and a stronger, less corrupt police force as the keys to progress. But as yet, no one has gone into detail on how the federal government can rein in the powerful drug-trafficking organizations – at least without cloak-and-dagger deals being cut.

After the PRI led early on, more recent polls suggest that the gap between the three main candidates has narrowed considerably: one citing Pena Nieto with 35.5 per cent, Vazquez Mota with 32 per cent and AMLO with 28 per cent of the vote. Despite the population’s overwhelming cynicism, Mexican elections generally enjoy bigger turnouts than north of the border – 64 per cent of the electorate came out in 2000 and 59 per cent in 2006. Some 77.8 million Mexicans at home and abroad are eligible to vote with a third reportedly undecided.

No one really knows what’s going to happen on July 1st or how much chicanery will be involved, but this is surely the most open of the three “democratic” elections Mexico has held since the PRI left power in 2000.

PAUL IMISON lives in Mexico City. He can be reached at  paulimison@hotmail.com