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Mexican Democracy: a Post Mortem

by PAUL IMISON

Mexico City.

On Friday, thousands of people in Mexico City joined a mock funeral procession to mourn the “death” of Mexican democracy. They needn’t worry. The very resistance by citizens to the electoral fraud this summer – exemplified by the student-led #YoSoy132 movement – shows that its vital signs are still ticking.

The Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI)’s Enrique Peña Nieto is now officially Mexico’s president-elect and will be sworn in on December 1. We all knew this the night of July 1 when President Felipe Calderon of the National Action Party (PAN) effectively anointed his successor dedazo-style (i.e. old-school) three days before the final count was in. We knew it for sure the next day when US President Barack Obama recognized the victory.

“The presidency can’t be bought!” screamed members of the leftist Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD) as the Federal Electoral Tribunal (TEPJF) announced it would ratify the election on Thursday. The Progressive Movement coalition – made up of the PRD, the Workers’ Party and the Citizens’ Movement Party – had demanded a full investigation into the election after evidence emerged of illegal campaign spending, rampant vote-buying and an overwhelming bias by the right-wing media.

Unlike in the US, Mexican elections are tightly regulated to ensure maximum transparency and fair play. Candidates get roughly US$26 million each to play with; private funding and negative campaigning are banned; TV and media spots are allocated by the Federal Electoral Institute (IFE). That’s the theory, at least.

Even before Mexicans went to the polls, hundreds of thousands of people were marching in protest of the PRI’s attempts to buy the election as well as against a corporate media so biased it could teach Fox News a thing or two. As for the supposedly “autonomous” TEPJF and IFE – it’s hard not to believe that the jury’s rigged.

One wonders if Enrique Peña Nieto, like Calderon in 2006, will have to be sworn in at midnight behind closed doors to prevent the angry hordes from crashing the party. It’s fast becoming a tradition since Mexico “transitioned to democracy” in 2000.

How Mexican Democracy “Works”

In many ways, it was déjà vu. In 2006, Felipe Calderon of the right-wing PAN defeated the PRD’s Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (AMLO) by just 0.56% of the vote. Thanks to veteran newshound Julio Scherer Garcia’s scathing new book on Calderon, we know that the PAN paid some US$800,000 to the company Hildebrando – part-owned by the president’s brother-in-law – which IFE contracted to design the electoral software. Along with the paper-trail, confirmation came straight from the mouth of former party president Manuel Espino.

This year, the PRI, which governed Mexico for 71 consecutive years as a de facto dictatorship (“the perfect dictatorship”, according to Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa), took a far simpler tack: throw money everywhere. This is fairly standard procedure in, say, the US, where elections are a corporate free-for-all, but in Mexico electoral reforms introduced since the 1990s were specifically designed to prevent such a farce.

Instrumental in the PRI’s great 2012 sham was the Monex Financial Group, which funneled as much as US$296.5 million of corporate donations and (inevitably) drug-trafficking profits into the coffers of Peña Nieto’s campaign. This money was not only twelve times the legal spending limit but also paid for gift cards, construction projects and other tools of coercion. Meanwhile, stories swirled of PRI thugs tearing down opposition campaign material and physically intimidating voters who refused to be bought.

In a hilarious subplot, Mexican-American businessman Jose Luis Ponce de Aquino is currently suing the PRI in a California court after they failed to hand over the US$56 million they offered him to promote Peña on his La Frontera network in the US. The poor sap has since implicated companies like GAP, FIG, GM Global and Jiramos in the scandal, as well as claiming that he received threats pertaining to the origin of the money he was promised; namely, organized crime.

Above all, however, the PRI’s victory came down to massive propaganda. Major polling agencies such as GEA/ISA and Consulta Mitofsky have been accused of deliberately exaggerating Peña Nieto’s popularity for months ahead of the election – they predicted a 40% lead; he won by less than 10%. The mainstream media hyped these polls unquestioningly. The (conservative) daily Milenio has since apologized for blindly accepting the polls of GEA/ISA, owned by a lifelong PRI member and former head of the state oil company PEMEX.

In the eyes of the Mexican Right, this whole shebang was necessary to prevent the country falling into the hands of what one right-wing daily termed “Venezuelan-style chavismo”. Foreign investment giants, the White House and the ten billionaires who own half of Mexico’s wealth can rest easy for now; thank God.

Old PRI/New PRI

Let’s be fair; the PRI ran a brilliant campaign. As the economy sputters and gang violence wracks much of the nation, Enrique Peña Nieto ran on the notion that a majority of Mexicans had it better under the party’s seven-decade dynasty. Ironically selling himself as “the new PRI”, he was actually whipping up nostalgia for “the old PRI”; the pre-IMF version when Mexico was one of the world’s fastest-growing economies.

The fate of the Mexican economy since it was “liberalized” by the IMF in the 1980s is an issue you shouldn’t discuss in polite circles. Nowadays, to express nostalgia for the PRI’s mildly-social democratic policies of the 1970s is to be a dangerous “radical”, as PRD candidates have learned.

AMLO, in fact, was the candidate closer to “the old PRI”, favoring greater investment in national industry and agriculture, the renegotiation of NAFTA, and the cleaning up of the state-run oil company to finance social spending. This was once the hallmark of the Mexican economy; now it’s propaganda on the way to a Chavez-style dictatorship.

Given the way the incumbent PAN stood aside, many speak of a pact between Felipe Calderon and the PRI to effectively hand over power at this election. Manuel Bartlett, a former PRI heavyweight who jumped ship and will be a senator for the Workers’ Party – a member of AMLO’s coalition – in the new legislature, recently claimed that the PRI-PAN acuerdo goes back to Carlos Salinas de Gortari’s blatantly-rigged victory of 1988.

Bartlett should know. While it’s rarely acknowledged now that he’s one of the “good guys”, as Salinas’s Secretary of the Interior, he’s believed to have played a key role in that year’s legendary computer-generated fraud.

At the time, the PRI maintained an absolute majority in congress and control of every state in the country, but there was a growing demand for cleaner, more transparent elections.

Bartlett: “It was agreed that Salinas would give [the PAN] concessions like governorships, other political positions, and carry out the right-wing reforms that they favored [if they backed his victory]. There began the pact.”

Neoliberals of Mexico Unite 

What’s generally been lost in the dispute over Peña Nieto’s victory is that his projected policies are almost exactly the same as those pushed by the PAN for the past twelve years. Like Calderon, Peña’s priorities will be labor, fiscal and energy reform; all of which essentially favor overseas investment giants over the needs of the country’s poor (and growing) majority. The PRD, now the second biggest political force in the two houses of congress, has already announced its intention to block the reforms.

Peña will also continue with the disaster that has been the US-funded “Drug War” – barring a few aesthetic tweaks like the creation of a National Police Force; largely recruited from the military and existing Federal Police. Beyond that, expect the security-state mentality of Calderon to remain; targeting low-level gang members (the poor), those pesky human rights defenders, and any group considered to be “destabilizing” the country (take your pick).

The cherry on the cake: the president-elect has recruited Washington-based PR firm Chlopak, Leonard, Schechter & Associates to polish his international image ahead of December 1. The agency’s past clients include Ernesto Zedillo (the last of the PRI dictators, currently accused of authoring the 1997 Acteal massacre in Chiapas), former Colombian president Alvaro Uribe, and the post-2009 coup Honduran regime of Roberto Micheletti.

It’s official, then: welcome to the “our bastards” club, Peña!

Taking It to the Streets  

Without question, the X-factor in this election was the student-led pro-democracy movement #YoSoy132, which nobody saw coming and which continues to oppose what it calls the “imposition” of Peña Nieto on the electorate. Formed on May 11 after a spontaneous campus protest against the PRI candidate, it threatened to tip the election on its head as it raged against the return of the “perfect dictatorship”.

Many of #YoSoy132’s protests have been directed at Televisa, the country’s powerful TV giant, which acted as a cheerleader for Peña Nieto from the off. When it’s not broadcasting telenovelas that sell Mexicans a lifestyle 99% of them can only dream about, its political coverage was little more than a long commercial for his presidential aspirations.

In June, Britain’s Guardian newspaper published documents that showed the PRI paid millions of dollars to the network in exchange for glowing coverage of its candidate along with a clear strategy to defame AMLO. The documents also provided further evidence of what everybody already knew; the PAN had had a similar arrangement in 2006.

On July 26, in spite of the monsoon-like weather that blows through Mexico City every summer, thousands of pro-democracy protesters surrounded the studios of Televisa in the capital for a 24-hour “blockade” that drew the heaviest police presence yet for a post-election demonstration.

There was yet another protest Saturday for President Calderon’s sixth and final Informe – or State of the Union address. #YoSoy132, like much of the population, views the two major parties as the “PRIAN”; a two-headed monster. What’s more, they view Calderon as complicit in the PRI’s grand larceny.

I met a group of US “Occupiers” volunteering in Mexico for the summer who were blown away by the organizational skills and gall shown by Mexican protesters in a country that – don’t forget – has a brutal history of suppressing political dissidence.

Put it this way: imagine US students staging a 24-hour blockade of Fox News or CNN because they believe the media giants are trying to “impose” a candidate on the electorate. Imagine a couple of hundred thousand people surrounding a national monument to demand an election free of media propaganda and corporate money. Imagine a US president having to be sworn in behind closed doors at midnight because there are hordes of people prepared to physically prevent him from taking office.

And so a new generation of Mexicans – natural torch-bearers of the students slain in the Tlatelolco massacre of ‘68 – take up the age-old causes of democracy, justice and national sovereignty. With further #YoSoy132 protests scheduled for key dates between now and December 1, the real question is how much gas the movement has left in the tank and what kind of pressure it can exert on the new administration.

The backdrop is a Latin America in the throes of political change. As many in the region celebrated the 229th anniversary of the birth of legendary independence hero Simon Bolivar on July 25, and with it the growing integration of a more progressive, social-democratic order, Mexico looks like more of a Cold War relic than ever; with the old anti-commie “our bastard” dictatorship, the PRI, back to boot. Just be thankful for the resistance.

Paul Imison is a writer living in Mexico City. He can be reached at: paulimison@hotmail.com

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