Mexico’s Hopes for Democracy Hit Dead-End

Mexico City.

When President Vicente Fox marched stiffly (he has a painfully sore back) down the central aisle of the Mexican congress this past September 1st on his way to render his annual State of the Union address (‘El Informe’), the usual adulation was muted and protest nil. Even the Left-wing opposition did not bother to turn their backs to the President, a long-standing “Informe” tradition here. Indeed, it seemed almost as if Mexico’s political class had abandoned all interest in Vicente Fox whose grievous setback in last July’s mid-term election has cast him as a lame-duck president for the next three years and a virtual political has-been.

Last July 6th, the once-ruling (71 years) Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which Fox’s National Action Party displaced from power in 2000, topped the right-wing PAN by a million vote margin 35% to 32% (Fox beat the PRI by 2.4 million votes just three years ago). The PRI win gave the Institutionals a total of 222 out of 500 seats in Mexico’s lower house of congress while the PAN’s delegation dropped by a whopping 50 deputies – most of these seats were picked up by the left-center Party of the Democratic Revolution which took its customary 17% of the national vote.

As a result, the PRI will enjoy its largest relative majority in the Chamber of Deputies since 1997 – the Party now controls both houses of congress by comfortable majorities as well as the flow of legislation that accompanies such control. For the past three years, the once – and apparently future – ruling party has thwarted all of Fox’s reform initiatives, miring the country in legislative gridlock.

The July 6th onslaught at the polls also gave the PRI four out of six governorships up for grabs that day. In five states, the party won a “carro complete” (“full car” in PRI speak), taking every federal district in the entity – in a sixth, Chiapas, the Institutionals won 11 out of 12. The big sweep puts the PRI in the driver’s seat for the 2006 presidential election.

But despite the party’s happy numbers, the unquestionable winner last July 6th was apathy. Despite the most ballyhooed midterm balloting in Mexican electoral history, an effort that included a record number of candidates (10,000) and parties (11), plus an unprecedented 65 million registered voters, 59% of the electorate stayed away from the polls. In a national show of pessimism at the faltering political process here, only four out of every 10 Mexicans cast a ballot (seven out of 10 voted in the Fox fiesta of 2000) and the numbers for all three major political parties plunged steeply.

Notwithstanding the wholesale rejection of the voters, U.S. State Department spokes Richard Boucher lauded “the strength and vitality of Mexican democracy” in a post-election press statement. But many Mexicans rue the direction that national politics have taken during the first three years of Vicente Fox’s Prozac-like presidency.

Although the 2003 election was billed as a referendum on Fox’s stay in office (it was and he lost badly), it was also a referendum on the performance of the parties and the verdict was a sharp dose of public contempt. “Mexicans did vote July 6th” affirmed a newspaper ad paid for by a network of civil society groups, “they voted against the political parties.” The ad damned the parties as “slaves to self interest” and enunciated a program that would allow non-partisan candidates to run in federal and state elections.

Vicente Fox’s downfall was eminently predictable. A master of marketing and one-time president of Coca Cola-Mexico, he sold himself to the electorate as “the Real Thing” and, like the product he promoted for so many years, proved to be mostly bubbles and artificial sweetener. Despite his fixation on the buzzword “change”, Fox could deliver none and the great hopes for a democratic Mexico that accompanied his 2000 victory, were quickly deflated.

Nonetheless, the Mexican president’s undoing was not entirely his own doing. Following in the footsteps of his PRI predecessors Carlos Salinas and Ernesto Zedillo, Fox has wedded his presidency to the White House where the ride has been a bumpy one for his partner George W. Bush. Elected in the same year (Bush was more accurately “selected”), Fox has suffered the hard knocks of 9/11 (the terrorist attack torpedoed a possible immigration agreement), the war in Iraq (Washington tongue-lashed Mexico for failing to back up Bush’s illegal invasion), and an economic nose-dive north of the border that has reverberated here in the highest unemployment numbers since the economic collapse of 1995.

In fact, Fox’s first three years in office look a lot like Bush’s – but without a 9/11 or Iraq war to drum up patriotic frenzy, characterized as they both have been by steady economic deterioration.

The phantasm of a resuscitated PRI reconquering power in 2006 has been a-gallop throughout the land since the July stampede. Such a sanguine outcome is enthusiastically prognosticated by PRI president Roberto Madrazo who will probably be his party’s presidential candidate. But for many in the opposition, the re-installation of “The Perfect Dictatorship” as novelist Mario Vargas Llosa once labeled the PRI, would be “a tragedy for the democratic aspirations of the Mexican people and for all of Latin America” Argentinean exile Guillermo Almeyra recently op-editorialized in the left daily La Jornada.

Still, although it remains the only party with a national rather than a regional constituency, the PRI is hardly the “aplanadora” (“steamroller” in PRI-ese) it once was. Its “victory” this July 6th was achieved with less votes than the party has ever registered in any previous federal election – the PRI’s 35% winning margin was 2% less than its losing tally in 2000. The party’s legitimacy, always dubious, hit rock bottom with revelations of the 2000 “Pemexgate” campaign funding scandal, and, wracked by schism, the divided PRI will not always vote as one in the new congress Fox called into session September 1st.

The one-time Official Party is also broke. Fined a billion pesos by the Federal Electoral Institute for the Pemexgate flimflam, the PRI has no budget for the next two years and Madrazo and his controversial secretary-general Elba Esther Gordillo no longer draw salaries (although the expense money still flows like the mighty Amazon.) A recent visit to the party’s mausoleum-like monoliths on North Insurgents Avenue here by a Proceso magazine reporter revealed darkened offices, littered floors, (janitorial service has been canceled). and no toilet paper in the bathrooms.

In truth, for the PRI, power has passed from its high-rise headquarters on Insurgentes where so many presidents were unveiled and crowned, to the mansions of the PRI’s 19 state governors who still have the patronage budgets to service the party’s electoral clientele.

Now a hostage of the PRI-dominated congress, the lame-duck Fox is suing for peace. Two weeks after the July fracaso, Fox’s attorney general Rafael Macedo de La Concha dropped most criminal proceedings against a dozen PRI honchos implicated in Pemexgate in an apparent quid pro quo to quash further PRI probing into the president’s own “Amigogate” campaign funding brouhaha, and to buy a little breathing room in the new congress for compromise on his reforms.

The PRI may be too busy squabbling to attend to the offer. The party’s legislative delegation has split over the Madrazo-engineered selection of Gordillo as boss of the PRI’s congressional representation with nasty invective and allegations of phone-bugging making daily headlines. Gordillo, a former education workers’ union chief who was recently compared to Jimmy Hoffa by the Wall Street Journal, is vilified in some PRI circles because of her close connections with President Fox and the formerly reviled ex-president Carlos Salinas de Gortari.

The re-emergence of Salinas from the swamp of ignominy, synchronized as it is with the recent PRI surge, has a lot of eyebrows wiggling here. Stigmatized by the lurid events of 1994 when his hand-picked successor was assassinated in Tijuana and his own brother fingered as the mastermind of a hit on the PRI secretary-general, Salinas fled the country amidst the wreckage of his “miracle” economy, and has wandered in self-imposed exile from Dublin to Havana ever since, lugging around his 1400-page apologia for his presidency to international book fairs in a pathetic ploy for vindication.

But under Fox, the first Mexican president ever to rise from the ranks of the opposition, Carlos Salinas has quietly slipped back into his palatial Tlalpan (south Mexico City) digs, even voted for the first time since he left office nine years ago, and now gives magnanimous interviews to the New York Times (if not to the Mexican press.) Insiders speak of nightly meetings at the Tlalpan hacienda as Salinas’s once-extensive network of loyalists creep out of their holes to rally around the Godfather. Madrazo, the PRI presidential front-runner, is a long-time Salinas protege and Elba Esther took over the teachers’ union with his permission.

Several dozen allies of the man Mexico loves to hate, including former cabinet ministers, have seats in the new congress – and the splinter parties Salinas created to undermine the PRD, the Party of Labor (PT), the Mexican Green Ecology Party (PVEM), and Democratic Convergence, will share 26 deputies in the lower house, who will at least listen to the ex-president’s proposals.

Although his re-entry seems part of a pattern of political come-backs by such Latin American oldies-but-not-so-goodies as Carlos Menem, Alan Garcia, and the blood-splattered General Efrain Rios-Montt in Guatemala, Salinas’s advantage is that he will not and cannot run for president and is not vulnerable to electoral vicissitudes. Playing the “tlatoani” or Aztec king-maker, will probably mitigate Salinas’s thirst for political vindication if not for public acceptance. “We just don’t want him here” Manuel Garcia snorted rudely as he pushed a cafe-con-leche across the counter at the La Blanca, a downtown hub, one recent rainy August night.

If the fortunes of the PRI are less than meet the eye, its chief competitors are in similar disarray. Big loser in the new congress, the PAN has somehow misplaced 3,000,000 voters since 2000 and has no attractive candidate for 2006 now that Vicente has laid down the law and barred his wife Marta de Fox from tossing her tiara into the ring. Enmeshed in a spreading influence trafficking scandal involving its senate leaders Diego Fernandez de Cevallos and Fausi Hamdan, PANista corruption is now indistinguishable from that of their predecessors in power.

The PRD, like the PRI, is technically bankrupt with outstanding debts in the $30 million USD range. Its electoral totals have declined precipitously by three million votes in the last six years although PRD representation in the new congress has virtually doubled to 92 thanks to the PAN’s widespread slippage. Besieged by party “tribes” or pressure groups, PRD head and presidential hopeful Rosario Robles resigned and stomped out of an August party congress.

Despite the installation of the new legislature, the prognosis is not bright for recovery of political credibility here. The paralysis of the PRD, the cynicism of the PAN, and public disillusionment at Fox’s failure to stimulate meaningful change, plus the PRI’s triumphal resurgence from the political muck, is lamentable evidence that Mexico’s eternal hope for a democratic transition has once again hit a dead-end.

JOHN ROSS will be covering the ins and outs of the upcoming World Trade Organization’s Cancun clambake September 10th-14th and the globalphobe fiesta that will accompany it.


JOHN ROSS’s El Monstruo – Dread & Redemption in Mexico City is now available at your local independent bookseller. Ross is plotting a monster book tour in 2010 – readers should direct possible venues to