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The Powers Behind the Throne

What Now for the Mexican Left?

by PAUL IMISON

Mexico City.

So the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which governed Mexico as a de facto dictatorship for 71 years, wins back power south of the border after a twelve-year absence. The Mexican business elite win. Foreign investment giants win. NAFTA wins. Washington, for its myriad interests in the country, wins. The Mexican population – or 99% of it – loses. As much of Latin America swings to the Left and looks for alternatives to the neoliberal model, Mexico (“so close to the United States, so far from God”) will surely be the last “domino” to fall.

The country’s Federal Electoral Institute (IFE) promised a “quick count” – based on a sample of 7,500 polling stations – to be released at 11:15pm Sunday. No sooner had IFE president Leonardo Valdes Zurita announced a seven-point lead by the PRI’s Enrique Peña Nieto with 38% of the vote in his favor than President Felipe Calderon appeared on national TV to congratulate the president-elect. Calderon, who faced accusations of fraud after his own election in 2006, insisted that “Today, Mexico voted like a free country.”

As of Monday evening, preliminary results from 98% of stations show Peña Nieto leading leftist candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (AMLO) of the Progressive Movement coalition by a 6.5% margin. This is nowhere near as close as the 0.56% margin by which AMLO lost to Calderon in 2006. Tellingly, AMLO has not claimed victory as he did that July, simply saying he would wait until all votes were counted before accepting the result.

The rush to recognize Peña Nieto’s victory by both the PRI and incumbent PAN was surely an attempt to dampen the likelihood of protest by AMLO’s supporters and groups such as the student-led #YoSoy132 movement in the coming days. Good luck with that. The so-called “Mexican Spring” looks set to turn into a long, heady summer.

So who really won the Mexican election? Notoriously crooked former president Carlos Salinas de Gortari, who will act as the power behind the throne of Peña Nieto, deserves a nod. These next six years will look a lot like the Salinas and Ernesto Zedillo administrations of the 1990s with a scoop of the militarization of the Calderon era for good measure.

The world’s oil giants win. Peña Nieto will back the privatization of Petroleos Mexicanos (PEMEX). Mexico’s oil industry, which accounts for some 40% of the federal budget, has been in state hands since 1938. The privatization of PEMEX has always been a sensitive issue owing to Mexican nationalism, but Peña – like Calderon before him – will fight on behalf of the world’s super-majors against the public interest.

US defense contractors reaping the blood money of Mexico’s “Drug War” also win. AMLO had vowed to halt the flow of gringo “security aid” that sent the Calderon administration on a killing spree. Peña Nieto has said he will continue “the struggle” against a drug-trafficking mafia that is nevertheless knee-deep in the country’s politics. We already know he will hire former Colombian National Police commander General Oscar Naranjo as chief security adviser; an extremely sketchy figure known for both his narco links and long working relationship with Washington.

If this is starting to sound a lot like the Felipe Calderon administration of the last six years, that’s because it will be. Ignore the hype that this is some kind of return to the dark days of authoritarianism for Mexico. The dark days never actually went away.

“The Most Transparent Election in History” 

Was it a clean victory by the PRI? Despite IFE’s claim that this would be “the most transparent election in Mexican history”, a recent poll by Latinobarometro indicated that around 71% of Mexicans were anticipating some kind of fraud. There’s a possibility that Peña Nieto – pushed down voters’ throats relentlessly for the best part of two years – would have won anyway given his enormous media exposure, but there is no guarantee.

We know for certain that the PRI employed its age-old tactics of vote-buying and coercion; the same ones it used to maintain power for seven decades. “Gift boxes” containing essential food items and two-hundred peso bills ready for distribution were photographed by journalists around the country. Pledges were made to replace rooftops and pave roads in impoverished communities – cement sales skyrocket every six years – if residents gave up their vote for Peña Nieto.

Stolen ballots, duplicated ballots, irregularities and threats were reported around the country, largely in poor rural areas. Armed thugs of unknown origin prevented people voting in municipalities of perennially-troubled states like Chihuahua and Guerrero. The country’s infamous “narcos” were all over the election like a rash, albeit mainly at the local level, where threats and kidnappings were commonplace.

We know that Televisa – the largest mass-media company in the Spanish-speaking world – assisted the campaigns of both Peña Nieto and PAN candidate Josefina Vazquez Mota. According to the investigative news magazine “Proceso”, they even had the same guy (producer Pedro Torres) working on both campaigns. Last month, The Guardian published evidence of a clear strategy by Televisa to discredit AMLO, both in this year’s election and in his 2006 duel with Calderon.

Mexicans also elected 500 deputies, 128 senators, six state governors, a Mexico City mayor, and local governments. The PRI now controls an impressive 23 states out of 31 in the republic yet it fell short of a majority in either the Chamber of Deputies or the Senate.

In good news, AMLO’s Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD) will be the second largest force in the Chamber of Deputies and have a sizable contingent in the Senate, a much-improved showing on its performance in the 2009 midterms. The party also retained Mexico City with its largest share of the vote in history. The capital is truly, in the late John Ross’s words, “Left City”.

What Now for the Left? 

Nevertheless, the Mexican Left now faces a dilemma. While AMLO could easily have won the presidency at least once in the last six years, there are an increasing number on the Left disenchanted by the PRD and its perceived swing to the center-ground. Interviewed in Contralinea magazine ahead of the election, Carlos Antonio Aguirre Rojas, a social scientist at Mexico’s National Autonomous University, berated the party’s “pragmatic Left” which he said simply seeks to rob from the trans-nationals to give to the domestic elite.

The PRD has had a long, shaky 23-year journey. Formed by Cuauhtemoc Cardenas in 1989 after his fraudulent defeat at the hands of Carlos Salinas and faced with a bloody “dirty war” by the PRI during the ‘90s, Cardenas pulled the PRD to the center-left, fearing extinction. For a long time, AMLO represented the die-hard, fist-pumping roots of the party, alienating many within the PRD, and he seemed to have been handed the ticket this time around only on the condition that he ran a more moderate campaign.

AMLO is unlikely to run for president again unless he does so by registering his Movement for National Regeneration (MORENA) as a party, heavily diluting the progressive vote. In 2018 the PRD candidate will surely be either Marcelo Ebrard, who just stepped down as Mexico City mayor, or his successor Miguel Angel Mancera. Both are of the centrist wing of the party and while widely loved in urbane (i.e. elitist) Mexico City, have nowhere near AMLO’s sway throughout the rest of the country.

The Left is divided in more ways than one. Both #YoSoy132 and the Movement for Peace with Justice & Dignity (the anti-Drug War and militarization movement) refused to endorse AMLO’s bid. The country’s so-called guerrilla groups did likewise, the Popular Revolutionary Army (EPR) of Guerrero publicly rejecting all four candidates, including AMLO, as “neoliberals”.

The fallout from Sunday’s election will be fascinating – and tense – to watch. Peña Nieto doesn’t take office until December 1. What happens now to the #YoSoy132 movement, literally hundreds of thousands of students who opposed the PRI candidate? They came out in force just yesterday to protest the result and may soon be joined by AMLO’s MORENA as the country wakes up to the very painful reality of the PRI’s return.

Paul Imison lives in Mexico. He can be reached at paulimison@hotmail.com