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A Choice for Change

Mexico´s three major candidates ended their campaigns Wednesday in emotional rallies throughout the country. During the few days left before the July 2 elections all campaigning is prohibited. With the proposals on the table, the test now will be to see if voters can cut through the media hype and mud-slinging to choose a direction for the next six years of the nation’s future.

Never in the modern history of the country has so much been at stake. The rotation of presidencies throughout the rule of the Institutional Revolutionary Party was carried out with the trappings of democracy and little of the substance. Policies were guaranteed to continue without a change in course, since the outgoing president hand-picked the incoming one. The 2000 elections offered a change in parties without changing policies.

But this year a candidate has proposed at least modifications to the political and economic orthodoxy. The largest event yesterday was the rally of leading candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador held in the heart of Mexico City. The center-left candidate spoke to over 200,000 supporters waving yellow flags and fervently chanting his name.

Unlike previous campaign speeches and the rallies of his opponents, the speech laid out the policies that would guide his presidency and responded only indirectly to the accusations of his opponents. In the forty-minute address, it hit the obligatory points expected by followers–with special emphasis on programs for the poor–and sought to allay the fears expressed by big business and the opposition.

The message to defend against privatization of the state-run oil industry drew strong cheers as did the program defined for a “new social pact.” The candidate promised to tour the country following elections to draw up a pact based on free healthcare, universal access to public education, pensions for the elderly and recognition of indigenous rights as defined by the San Andrés Accords, which were signed by the federal government but largely rejected in Congress.

Perhaps no message so consistently hit a chord among the dense crowd in Mexico’s central plaza as the call to end the privileges of the rich. The extreme polarization of wealth that has occurred in Mexico over the past decade has fed resentments that found expression in Lopez Obrador’s “first the poor” platform. His calls for lower government salaries, an end to huge pensions for ex-presidents (as usual, the mention of ex-president Carlos Salinas garnered boos and whistles) and elimination of tax breaks for the wealthy clearly resonate among the poor.

Having established credentials among center-left supporters, the leading candidate then offered reassurances to a business community that has accused him of reckless populism.

The ill-defined accusation of populism has been a constant among business opposition both in Mexico and abroad. In its editorial on the Mexican elections the Wall Street Journal used the fear-charged immigration debate in the United States to warn against Lopez Obrador: “(I)f they revert to the populist habits of yore, no American wall will be high enough to keep the flood of desperate workers out.” Lopez Obrador sought lay to rest these accusations to rest during his closing rally. “We will not act irresponsibly, there will be no crisis,” he stated emphatically. He repeated a commitment to control the deficit and inflation, respect the autonomy of the central bank, follow a path of “development without debt” and assure “technical, not ideological, management of the economy.” The alarm sounded by the rightwing of an increase in immigration is ironic, given that to date precisely the opposite has been true. During the period of greatest adherence to “modernization” under the NAFTA, migration to the United States skyrocketed as peasants were displaced by agricultural imports and workers suffered decreases in real wages and rising unemployment.

In referring to foreign policy, López Obrador reiterated the tenets of Mexican foreign policy: non-intervention, respect for the right to self-determination, dialogue and a development focus. He promised a low profile in international affairs, a foreign policy based on an extension of domestic policies and a refusal to be subordinated to outside interests. “We will not meddle in the internal affairs of other nations. The next president will not be a straw man for any foreign country.” President Vicente Fox is widely viewed within Mexico as a sycophant to U.S. interests.

Lopez Obrador holds a slight lead over Felipe Calderón, the candidate of the rightwing National Action Party (PAN). The competition between the two has been fierce, and their supporters form opposing camps in a highly charged debate over the country’s future and the personal character of the two men.

But now that the campaign has ended, for both candidates the real challenge will be fulfilling the many promises they have made should they win. The Mexican public is weary of promises and in a growing democracy either will face a stronger demand for accountability than past governments have.

For Calderón the problem is not in implementing the policies but attaining the results promised for those policies. Since he has proposed a continuation of the same policies enacted throughout the last two decades of PRI and PAN governments, he would have the support of vested national and international interests. But “trickle down” to the majority has been slight or nil and people are highly skeptical of the capacity of current economic policies to satisfy the demands of the poor–with due reason.

For Lopez Obrador, the problem will be implementing the policies announced. With the entire Senate and House also up for reelection, he would face a divided Congress and open hostility from a business class intent on retaining current privileges, as well as external pressures from international financial institutions, the U.S. government and the transnational corporations that now control much of the domestic economy. Inverting priorities from the rich to the poor in a country both economically and politically polarized will require a firm hand, active support from the citizenry and carefully designed and timed reforms.

Mexico faces the question posed in all the Latin American countries now under the mantle of center-left governments-can change in the economic model to prioritize the poor really happen through elections? Lopez Obrador repeated two proposals in his last campaign speech that mark the parameters of political action in this field. They define both the minimum the left can offer to retain credibility among the poor majority and probably the maximum that the Lopez Obrador government would or can offer in a world globalized by the powerful.

The first is the promise to cancel a clause in NAFTA that liberalizes corn and beans in 2008. The U.S. government has adamantly refused to reopen this clause. Not only is Mexico an important market for its surplus production in these products, but also renegotiating the clause would set a precedent that violates the U.S. government’s trade strategy to call the shots for economic integration. While legally possible, it will be an early showdown in relations with Mexico’s major trade partner and a test of presidential will and strength for Mexico’s long-suffering agricultural sector. Renegotiation of the liberalization clause in agriculture forms part of a reorientation away from an economic policy based solely on market forces to greater state involvement and includes proposals to offer guarantee prices on some agricultural products, preferential credit rates and support to small producers.

The second is the promise not to privatize the oil industry. Here popular resistance to privatization is so strong that success is virtually assured, as evidenced by the failure of a pro-privatization Fox government to carry out this constitutional change. But maintaining state control over oil resources will face strong resistance from international lending institutions, part of the national private sector and the U.S. government. In this area, however, Mexico will find support from the south among Latin American governments seeking to gain greater control and benefits from national resources.

In the end, winning the election may prove to be the easy part. A “new social pact” will have to be built within a society that has been divided by the elections and by economic policies that have even more starkly separated the interests of the top and bottom rungs. Years of false democracy and empty promises have created a lack of confidence in formal politics that cannot be overcome in the short term. Higher expectations will build pressure from the majority that have been excluded from the benefits of globalization. If Lopez Obrador wins, powerful forces on the right will regroup to oppose many of his policies.

If Lopez Obrador wins the election on July 2, he sets out on a tight-rope walk that will require both balance and audacity. The challenge is huge but that doesn’t mean that stability means remaining on the platform. The current platform is anything but stable. With policies oriented to national development and the active backing of the majority of the population, Mexico’s determination to change has a good chance of leading to a stronger, more just society.

LAURA CARLSEN directs the Americas Program of the International Relations Center. She can be reached at: laura@irc-online.org

 

 

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Laura Carlsen is the director of the Americas Program in Mexico City and advisor to Just Associates (JASS) .

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