Mexico’s Time of Troubles

On Sept. 6 the Mexican Federal Electoral Tribunal drew its breath, crossed its fingers and, hoping that its decision would stick, declared Felipe Calderón the winner of the nation’s July 2 presidential election.

Its dictum was an exercise in wishful thinking, because it is one thing to be named as president and another to be regarded as competent, honorable or benign.

Even when on Sept. 16 opponents of the new president-elect give up their camp-outs in downtown Mexico city, acquiesce and with a sigh of resignation, return to their homes, Calderón will take office under scorn, hobbled by infamy.

His inauguration on Dec. 1 will be bubble in a boiling pot, not the beginning or end of anything.

A pre-election editorial by the New York Times best described the handicap that Calderón can’t wish away or resolve: “He is a respectable model of the Latin American colorless, Harvard-educated, pro-business candidate.”

Calderón’s past, his personality and his politics do not fit him for leadership in country of the hard-pressed and poor. His persona is that of a placeholder for the rich, and his electoral victory-if it was that–is dubious.

The economic program of Calderón predecessor, Vicente Fox, also made him a candidate of the rich, but Fox’s cowboy boots, braggadocio and public swearing persuaded the voters otherwise. Fox, like George W. Bush, had the redneck touch. But Calderón is John Snow, the U.S. Treasury Secretary whom almost everyone quickly forgot.

To say that the tepid Calderón will be a rich man’s president, and that Andrés Manuel López Obrador, his main opponent, was the champion of the poor, is not to say that in Mexico millions of people don’t belong to a middle class-or that much of that middle class didn’t vote for Calderón. Instead it is to say that the rich backed Calderón, while the poor sympathized with López Obrador.


A Tainted Election

One of the chasmic difference between Mexico and the United States is that in Mexico, the poor are a slim majority, not a mere niche. Perhaps more than that, Mexico is a country with a deeply populist civic self-image and tradition: the country’s political founders were not middle-to-upper-class planters or merchants in white wigs, but rough-and-ready warriors, grimy miners and peasants. In Mexico, to speak for the poor is to speak for “the people.” To represent anybody else is to represent an oligarchy of some kind.

Calderón bases his claim to legitimacy on having won the presidency by 243,000 of some 42 million votes cast, .58 percent of the total. His margin was paper-thin, but he won fair and square, his backers say.

If he won.

In challenging the vote count, López Obrador (also known as AMLO and “El Peje”) showed that mathematical errors afflicted more than 40 percent of the vote tallies. The Electoral Tribunal ordered recounts of only 9 percent of the total, still enough to trim Calderon’s margin by 10,000 votes.

The Electoral Tribunal turned down a request to see the ballots, made by a panel of citizens-AMLO supporters, to be sure-that included novelist Elena Poniatowska. Ballots are not public records, it said. And already, there’s a move to burn those ballots, as the Mexican Congress did following the 1988 election, which, by nearly all accounts, was stolen by Carlos Salinas of the Partido Revolucionario Institucional, or PRI. Ballot-burning, if it comes this time, will be easier because it’s been legalized.

But it won’t be more convincing.

In northern Mexico, which Calderón strongly carried, it is likely that the PRI, desperate for appointive jobs and committee positions, both legally and in some locales, illegally shifted votes to Calderón´s Partido Acción Nacional, or PAN, in line with a plot, captured on telephone tapes, that was promoted by the then-PRIista leader, Elba Esther Gordillo. But the Electoral Tribunal did not look into the northern-state shenanigans.

Only in a perfunctory way did the Tribunal weigh charges that President Fox violated Mexican electoral law by taking a partisan role in the campaign, and that a group other than a political party-a consortium of businessmen-had run hundreds of television defaming AMLO. The Tribunal´s seven judges found that both Fox and the business group had indeed stepped on the toes of legality-but that their transgressions hadn’t significantly altered outcomes at the polls.

Was the Tribunal´s sage sociological speculation based on the premise that Mexicans don’t watch television? The very lower-middle class that may have swung its vote to Calderón is as addicted as in the United States.

Even without the help of the business group, the Calderón campaign out-spent AMLO on advertising crusades two-to-one. The PAN had the backing to upset the polls, which for two years, until last April-when the onslaught of business-group ads began–had given López Obrador margins of 8 to 20 points.

As the election went, neither Calderón nor AMLO can claim a margin wide enough to govern comfortably: both polled less than 36 perfect of the vote because the wily PRI managed to garner 22 percent. A run-off was needed, but Mexico’s electoral system, like the American one, fails to provide for as much. The PRI didn’t carry a single state, but because its strongholds are among the peasantry-people who are unquestionably poor-the likelihood is that López Obrador would have won had a run-off been possible.

If by some improbability, Calderón cleanly won the vote under the extant rules, by even as much as .58 percent cent, López Obrador must of course share the blame. His campaign slogan, “For the Good of All-the Poor First!” was not calculated to appeal to the pride of those who, though they may have formerly considered themselves poor, are today teetering above that abyss. Indeed, AMLO’s poor-mouthing may have offended them–and they are legion.

About 40 percent of the Mexican workforce is employed in the formal economy and therefore enjoys minimum wage, retirement and unemployment protections, plus housing benefits. Almost all economists agree that Mexican workers have not made gains since as far back as what’s called “The Crisis,” a downturn that began with the oil bust and devaluation of 1982 and hasn’t ended yet.

But during the Fox administration, thanks in part to the internationalization of Mexico’s banking chains-all of them are foreign-owned today-participants in the formal economy gained access to credit. Millions of Mexicans have since made down payments on cars and houses, taken out variable-rate loans for the balances, and are feeling flush.

Just like millions of workaday Americans, their sense of well-being is fueled by what they can borrow, not what they have earned. The zillion television ads that the business group-the Consejo Coordinador Empresarial, or Business Coordinating Council-broadcast over television warned that if López Obrador were elected and kept his promise to establish a $70-per-month pension for people over 70, interest rates would rise. The ads struck home. The creditworthy voted from fear, not faith.

Blame may also be owed, not only to Fox and the fat cats, but to López Obrador ‘s associates in the Partido de la Revolución Democrático. In two states the party turned out less voters than when it elected governors. The same thing happened in various municipalities governed by the PRD, though whether the falloff is due to perceived corruption, or to the PRD’s cutthroat factionalism, is not clear.

But Calderón made an unpardonable mistake when he was first named as ostensible winner in July. Given Mexico’s venerable history of vote fraud, if Calderón won fair and square, he should have shown the Mexican public as much. He should have joined López Obrador in calls for a recount or nullification of the vote. That he didn’t indicates that he wasn’t sure.

The upshot of all of these factors is that there’s nothing happy on the Mexican political horizon. For the first time in the nation’s history, a president was unable to deliver his customary September state of the union message because of a rebellion by PRD congressmen, who took the podium and wouldn’t yield. López Obrador and his allies are threatening to carry off a similar performance for Calderón’s Dec. 1 inauguration. At a minimum, they will again put a million banner-waving, traffic-blocking protestors into the streets.

When Vicente Fox drapes Felipe Calderón in the tricolor Mexican presidential sash-as he will, even if the ceremony is staged like his state of the union address, in a television studio-a lasting image of Calderón will emerge. In the minds of millions of Mexicans, he will be the rich guy who, with all the money that plutocrats could supply, and all the fear that consumer debt could feed, managed to hold onto the presidency with a mere palm full of votes in his favor. He’ll be seen as a classic miser, as an aristocrat who bickered with his yardman over an hour’s wage or a tip-and had the last word because of who he was, the bossman, the man with the pencil, the child of Those Who’ve Always Won. He is anything but populist, and as president, is likely to be anything but popular.


The Future of the PRD

López Obrador has declared that he will never recognize Calderón as president, and that he will now form a parallel government, whatever that will mean, to conduct the affairs of the majority that, he still insists, elected him. Though he has throughout his career pulled off feats that even the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. couldn’t have matched, I doubt that the campaign will prosper: people can’t stay mobilized forever because they have to chase furtive livelihoods. What is more likely-and perhaps Calderón is counting on this-is that the coaltion that the AMLO bound together will collapse, and maybe, the PRD itself. Already, Convergencia, one of the two minor parties in the PRD electoral front, has agreed to cooperate with Calderón’s PRI-PAN regime.

If Calderón is looking forward to the dissolution of the PRD, he lives in a world that is too genteel. Opposition will not simply dry up nor will opponents give in as they go about their daily lives. The PRD, if it has accomplished nothing else, has drawn thousands of working-class supporters into its ranks, putting politics back into kitchen-table talk. It has also knitted into a functioning unit the scores of leftist sects, composed mainly of middle-class intellectuals, that have played the gadfly’s role in Mexican politics since the Tlatelolco massacre of 1968. The restive elements of both strata include hundreds of thousands of people who are young, impatient and bold.

Mexico’s revolutionary tradition is neither so distant nor one-offish as that of the United States. Its independence was born of the Revolution of 1810, when a priest led Indian mobs in a rising against Spain, and the Mexican political system’s contemporary form stems largely from the Revolution of 1910, when the likes of the bandit Villa and the peasant Zapata turned the country upside-down for nearly 20 years. Every child in Mexico was raised to revere the nation’s rebels in arms.

In a land whose hallowed prehispanic ancestors believed that all of life is cyclical, a double anniversary-a revolutionary year–is also drawing near. The Chiapas uprising led by Subcomandate Marcos in 1994 was not an anomaly but a recurrence–and could prove prophetic in 2010.

Already guerrilla bands that have stayed hidden, never disarming in states like Oaxaca, Chiapas and Guerrero, are showing themselves again. Thanks to prosperity of Mexico’s narcotraffickers, new guerrilla movements will have no trouble procuring small arms, despite long-standing gun control laws.

But any new return to arms is likely to involve hundreds, not thousands of rebels. Rural revolts by themselves cannot carry Mexico into a new day, as in 1810 and 1910, and urban organizations with revolutionary intent have always been short-lived and rare.

López Obrador does not have any significant following, nor has his party tried to inseminate support inside the Mexican army, whose disposition would be critical to any renewed revolt: had Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez not once been Colonel Chávez, and had he not won a loyal following in that country’s officer corps, the ballots that elected him might not have been scrupulously tallied, either-nor could he have survived the coup of 2002. Because AMLO laid no groundwork in the armed forces, unless they limit themselves to purely symbolic assaults, the firebrands who will take up arms to vindicate him will see their plots and plans-and their very sincere and patriotic idealism-crushed, snuffed, burlesqued and condemned.

When Calderón becomes president, the perspective for his nation will be of the plainest and commonest, even of the most traditional, kind. Mexico will pass through a time of troubles that will benefit no one.

DICK J. REAVIS, an assistant professor of English at North Carolina State University, has covered Mexican elections for Texas Monthly since 1982. He can be reached:



Dick J. Reavis is a Texas journalist and the author of The Ashes of Waco.