The Left has held power in many of the world’s great cities. The Commune once ran Paris and the Communists Marseilles. Milan, Naples, Rome, Madrid and Barcelona (administered by anarchists collectives) have all been under Left rule as have Sao Paolo, Lima, Caracas, San Salvador, Managua, and Montevideo – but no left party has ever run a more monstrous megalopolis than Mexico City, the most contentious urban stain in the Americas which the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) has held in thrall for the past 12 years.
Over the course of this extended run, the PRD has done its damnedest to tame this savage beast of a city despite simultaneous assault from killer air quality, homicidal traffic, yearly floods, a failing water supply, 20,000 tons of daily garbage, a deteriorating infrastructure, and a restless population of 23,000,000 mostly poor and pissed-off citizens.
In many respects, the Left has succeeded. During a dozen years under social democratic tutelage, the Mexican capital has been transformed into a livable, socially conscious and culturally savvy enclave that holds many things in common with quintessentially liberal San Francisco California. Same sex couples exchange vows at City Hall, the plazas are always thrumming with cultural offerings, abortion is available on demand, and condoms passed out at public events. Health care, unemployment benefits, and pensions are extended to the most downtrodden chilangos (Mexico City residents) and a right-to-die law is available for hundreds of terminally ill patients. Sundays are car-free Bicycle days, and decriminalizing marijuana enlivens debate in the legislative assembly. Such are some of the amenities of living in Left City.
Nonetheless as the July 5th mid-term elections that will install a new national congress, a fresh legislative assembly, and elected officials in the metropolis’s 16 delegations or boroughs loom, the PRD’s hold on power is being severely tested at the grassroots.
With a population of 1.8 million and the highest crime rates in the metropolitan zone, the Iztapalapa delegation in the impoverished east of the capital, is a glaring example of the left party’s decomposition. Ever since PRD founder Cuauhtemoc Cardenas’s overwhelming victory in 1997 to become Mexico City’s first-ever elected mayor, Iztapalapa, the largest and most populous delegation of the capital’s 16 such demarcations (if it was a state it would be the 20th in the Mexican union) has been a driving force in keeping city government in the left lane.
First settled by migrant farmers driven off their lands in a dozen central Mexican states, Iztapalapa became the seed bed of the urban popular movement which rose from the ashes of the devastating 1985 earthquake that killed as many as 30,000 here. Demanding social services and decent housing, groups like the UPREZ and the Francisco Villa Popular Front kept the feet of those who governed the city to the fire. Their grassroots organizing was instrumental in bringing the PRD to power. During the 12 years that the Party of the Democratic Revolution has run the city, Iztapalapa has been vital in returning three PRD mayors to power and the left party dominates the delegation’s social and political milieu. But in 2009, the Left’s hand is clearly slipping.
Iztapalapa was once a lakeside settlement before the lake dried up and blew away. In Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs, “Izta-Palapa” translates to the “place of clay” or more colloquially “the slippery place”, a place name that encapsulates the current political push and pull in the delegation where the PRD is split into warring factions.
The hostilities represent residual fall-out from the 2006 presidential elections in which the wildly popular Mexico City mayor Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (AMLO) was swindled out of victory by the right-wing PAN Party’s Felipe Calderon. After months of protest, Lopez Obrador was ultimately reduced to forming a shadow government and AMLO, who took on the persona of “the Legitimate President of Mexico,” refused to recognize Calderon’s right to hold the office. But a rival faction, “Nueva Izquierda” or “New Left”, led by so many party apparatchiks named Jesus that it became familiarly known as “Los Chuchos”, bridled at the AMLO-imposed constraints at dealing with the Calderon administration. Led by chief Chucho Jesus Ortega, a PRD senator who touts Nueva Izquierda as “the responsible Left”, the Jesuses began negotiating with the PANista president behind Lopez Obrador’s back – for which they were rewarded with the presidency of the lower house.
The schism came to a boil in March 2007 internal party elections. Although AMLO had the numbers, the Chuchos controlled influential legislators in both houses of congress in addition to the PRD’s electoral machinery – the Party of the Democratic Revolution’s internal elections are notorious for self-inflicted fraud. Reports of disappearing ballot boxes and the counting of votes that were never cast were rife – exactly the same charges AMLO had leveled at Calderon in 2006 – but in the end, the Chuchos prevailed and kicked Lopez Obrador’s “Legitimate Government of Mexico” out of Mexico City party headquarters. The war of words ratcheted up to fever pitch.
Then this past March, as the first federal elections since the Great Fraud heaved into sight, Lopez Obrador reversed fields and struck a temporary deal with Ortega and his Jesuses. AMLO would get to name his candidates in Mexico City and his native Tabasco state and Ortega’s New Left could have the rest of the country. Focused on preserving a vehicle that he can ride onto the 2012 presidential ballot, AMLO, rather than supporting PRD candidates that were not of his choosing, would endorse and campaign for the nominees of two tiny satellite parties – the Party of Labor (PT) and Democratic Convergence, both of which need to corral 2 per cent of the popular vote this July 5 to maintain their registration. The PT and Convergencia are seen as a hedge for a spot on the 2012 ballot should Lopez Obrador be expelled from the PRD, not an unlikely post-July 5 scenario.
AMLO’s candidate to head the delegation out in Iztapalapa, Clara Brugada, is a youthful 40-something-year-old with a broad smile and tough as nails reputation who made her bones in the trenches of the urban popular movement. As “lideresa” of the Emiliano Zapata Popular Revolutionary Union (UPREZ) in Iztapalapa, Brugada served in both the Mexico City legislature and the lower house of congress, often spicing up debates with her attack-dog delivery aimed squarely at the rival PRI and PAN and Ortega’s PRD. Brugada has repeatedly clashed with the long-time PRD ward boss in Iztapalapa, Rene Arce, a true-blue Chucho, and when Lopez Obrador named her as the candidate for chief of the delegation or “delegada”, Arce and Ortega counterpunched with Sylvia Oliva, Arce’s ex-wife.
Although Brugada won the nomination by a slim margin, the Chuchos lodged an appeal with the Judicial Electoral Tribunal (TEPJF), which has the last word in such disputes. The TEPJF is seen as a loyal ally of Calderon whose fraud-tarred election it upheld in 2006. The TEPJF also signed off on Ortega’s tainted victory over Lopez Obrador’s faction in internal PRD elections, over which the Tribunal has no jurisdiction. Chief Justice Maria del Carmen Alanis is, in fact, a schoolgirl chum of Calderon’s first lady, Margarita Zavala.
As might be expected, on June 12, three weeks before the election, the Tribunal nullified the results of the Brugada-Oliva face-off in 47 polling places alleging election officials were not residents of the precincts where the voting was conducted or did not establish their membership in the PRD, a decision that shaved just enough votes from Brugada’s winning totals to hand Oliva a 300 vote victory.
The Tribunal then instructed the Mexico City chapter of the PRD to register Oliva’s candidacy for Iztapalapa delegada with the local electoral authorities (IEDF) – but the Mexico City PRD, which is under Lopez Obrador’s spell, flat-out refused. Mexico City party president Alejandra Barrales resigned rather than carry out the court orders. The Tribunal’s midnight deadline passed with no resolution.
Nonetheless, Ortega was granted an extension by the TEPJF to register Oliva with the IEDF, the maximum electoral authority in the capital – which, like the local chapter of the party, is controlled by Lopez Obrador’s people. When the commissioners questioned the court’s decision to substitute Oliva for Brugada, Alanis threatened them with 36 hours arrest for contempt and their resistance collapsed.
But the Chuchos faced one more seemingly insurmountable obstacle to getting Oliva’s name on the ballot. Ortega had challenged Brugada’s vote totals at the last minute and the ballots had already been printed with Clara’s name inscribed as the PRD candidate. To finesse this final hurdle, the TEPJF ruled that all votes cast for Brugada would be counted for Oliva.
AMLO was infuriated by the flimflam. Summoning tens of thousands of his followers to a meeting in the center of Iztapalapa, he invited voters to back the unknown PT candidate Rafael Acosta AKA “Johnny” instead of checking off Brugada’s name on the ballot. If he were to win, “Johnny” pledged to abdicate (a precedent most politicos would be wise to follow.) AMLO’s successor as Mexico City mayor Marcelo Ebrard would then appoint Brugada to fill the vacancy in Iztapalapa. But the mayor, a presidential hopeful himself in 2012, told TV monopoly Televisa, Lopez Obrador’s most visceral foe, that AMLO had never consulted him about the proposed switcheroo.
The electoral St. Vitas dance in Iztapalapa is a microcosm, albeit an exaggerated one, of the sort of foul play across the political spectrum that is driving the voters away in droves as July 5 approaches. Some political pollsters estimate that as many as 80 per cent of Mexico’s 77,000,000 voters may sit out the election, disaffected by the parties for the frustrating chicanery of 2006 and the political class’s egregious betrayal of public will ever since. Many will stay home and others cast blank ballots or scrawl dire imprecations across them to nullify their vote. Still others will write in fake candidates such as “Esperanza Marchita” or “Wilted Hopes” – the PRD bills itself as “The Party of Hope.” The “Marchita” campaign is not just a negative insist prime movers Sergio Aguayo, founder of the long-lived electoral watchdog “Alianza Civica” and prominent political columnist Denise Dresser. Rather than throwing away their suffrage, voters for the “wilted hopes” option want reform – independent candidates, referendums and plebiscites and public consultations and a second-round of voting to loosen the stranglehold of the parties on the electoral process.
How many protest votes will be cast remains murky. In 2003, the last mid-term election, nearly a million votes were declared null and void, 3 per cent of the total votes cast. Under electoral law, if more “votos nulos” are cast than the difference between the first-place and second-place candidates than a recount must be conducted.
Although all parties will be impacted by such activist voter rejection, the PRD and AMLO’s satellite parties would be particularly stung. Both the PRI and the PAN have a “hard vote” (“voto duro”) that will automatically turn out at the polls no matter how unexcited they are about their parties’ candidates but the PRD and its allies depend on that third of the electorate that is not commited to any party and whose vote is often cast in protest, the so-called “voto de castigo” or “punishment vote.” It is precisely that segment of the electorate that is most apt to express its disgust at the political class by casting a ballot that will not be counted.
The possibility of an abundant “voto nulo” has drawn universal condemnation from Calderon to the most powerful Cardinal in Mexico and the leaders of the major political parties. Battling for their mutual survivals, both Lopez Obrador and Jesus Ortega are frenetically trying to animate voters. “Annulling one’s vote is a perversion,” Ortega lashes out. AMLO labels the “voto nulo” a trick perpetrated by the PRI and the PAN to consolidate their majorities.
He also accuses his Televisa nemesis, in collusion with its junior partner TV Azteca, of fomenting the idea of a blank or annulled ballot as retaliation for electoral reform that deprived the two-headed television demon of juicy political advertising revenues – because abuses of political spots were so prevalent in the 2006 debacle, the amount of time the parties can now buy has been severely restricted. A counter-reform favoring the TV titans is expected to be introduced in the new congress by the so-called Mexican Green Environmental Party (PVEM) which Televisa appears to be underwriting.
A week before the July 5 mid-term elections, the PRI, which ran the lives of Mexicans from the cradle to the grave for seven decades before finally ceding power to the right-wing PAN in 2000, appears to have a four to six point lead over Calderon’s party. In alliance with the Televisa-backed Mexican Green Environmental Party which is campaigning for the restoration of the death penalty (sic), the PRI could take as many as 252 seats out of a total 500 in the lower house July 5th.
The PAN, battered by a devastating downturn that will shrink the economy by 8 per cent this year – the steepest slide in 72 years, Calderon’s terrifying drug war that has taken over 10,000 lives, and even the swine flu “PANdemic” panic, may only clock 21 to 25 per cent of the national vote this time out, 10 points less than in 2006.
For the PRD, a party that came within a heartbeat of winning the presidency three years ago (and probably did), the prospects are even dimmer – 12 to 14 per cent of the national vote for both the Lopez Obrador and Ortega parts of the party. One doomsday scenario has the PRD ceding its place as the nation’s third political force to the PVEM.
In Mexico City, the pickings could be slimmed down radically. Of the 16 delegations up for grabs, the leftists could lose six and while the PRD will probably retain its majority in the legislative assembly, the party will be limited in moving its left agenda for the first time since it took power in the capital a dozen years ago. Iztapalapa, from where this reporter covered Cardenas’s jubilant triumph in 1997 to become the first elected mayor of Mexico City, could well be the party’s graveyard.
Despite the delirious claims of impending victory by the big political parties, there is little question that between absent voters and the votos nulos the big winner this July 5 will be the Party of No.
JOHN ROSS’s “El Monstruo – Dread & Redemption in Mexico City” will be published by Nation Books in December. If you have further info write firstname.lastname@example.org