Mexican democracy in peril

Sergio Aguayo Quezada
20 April 2005

A bitter political feud between left and right is testing Mexico’s democratic transition. The crisis intensified on 7 April 2005 when the lower house of congress voted by 360 votes to 127 to deprive the mayor of Mexico City, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, of legal immunity. He is accused of a minor breach of procedure — that he allowed officials in his administration to refuse compliance with a court order that would halt the construction of a section of road leading to a hospital. The significance of the congressional vote is that it exposes Obrador to prosecution – which would render him ineligible to be the candidate of the leftist Partido de la Revolución Democrática (PRD) in the July 2006 presidential elections.

In the background deep wounds are festering.

Metropolitan Mexico City is a colossal metropolis where all the contradictions of the western hemisphere converge. Three million cars and 19 million people – 8 million in the capital and the rest in one of its bordering states – manage to survive in an area of 5,290 square kilometres.

Distinguished and plebeian, sophisticated and illiterate, grey and polychromatic, insecure and solidaristic, violent and tender, vicious and virtuous: Mexico City embodies all the contrasts that arise from the clash between opulence and misery. A few hours in this flawed city is enough to understand the elements of its social conflict.

Mexico City was the birthplace of the democratic transition that began formally with the student movement of 1968, continued with the massive protests against the fraud that gave Carlos Salinas de Gortari the presidency in 1988 and ended in the 1990s with repeated popular mobilisation in favour of a free and reliable voting system.

Also on Mexico in openDemocracy:

Donald Nicholson-Smith, “Black glove/white glove: revisiting Mexico’s 1968” (August 2004)

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In general terms, Mexican society might be conservative, but its capital and an important section of the metropolitan area are now governed and/or controlled by the PRD.

Mexico, like all Latin American countries, is searching for fresh alternatives to the neo-liberal politics of the 1980s and 1990s. With few exceptions, the rules of market economics and liberal democracy are universally accepted. But at the same time, there is dissatisfaction with the outcome of the structural adjustment policies imposed in the 1980s by Washington and the international financial system.

Despite its contradictions and limitations, the social policies promoted by Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s city government, coupled with his ability to communicate, have won him the support of a majority of Mexican citizens. If the elections were held today, he would undoubtedly be president.

In the 20th century, Mexico became notorious for electoral frauds, which allowed the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI) to control the country for seven decades. But, in the presidential race of 2000, the candidate of the right-wing Partido Acción Nacional (PAN), Vicente Fox, wrested the presidency from the PRI – leaving the PRI substantial power in congress and in a number of Mexico’s provinces.

But after seizing the reins of government, Fox lost his reformer’s zeal and opted for compromise and an alliance with the old regime. The result was retrenchment and an end to Mexico’s democratic forward movement.

More recently, Fox, the PAN and the PRI have all taken political advantage of the municipal land dispute and used their joint congressional majority to impose the desafuero (withdrawal of legal immunity) on Obrador to exclude him from the 2006 presidential race. Obrador heads the opinion polls and the scale of popular protest against the impeachment has prompted a signal from Santiago Creel, the interior minister, and Rubén Aguilar, presidential spokesman, that the government may be forced to seek a compromise with the popular mayor.

In the authoritarian Mexico of the past, the president “chose” his successor in a smooth process that the popular imagination baptised as the dedazo (the big finger). In the eyes of the new Mexico – the one that wants to become a democratic nation – the right is mounting an undemocratic manazo (putsch) against the left, to undermine the free and fair ballot system that democracy had granted.

Most Mexican intellectuals disapprove of Obrador’s impeachment process, echoing what 70% of Mexicans believe: that Fox, the PAN and the PRI have betrayed democracy and, under the shield of legality, transformed a civic clash between left and right into a dangerous feud.

Nobody knows what repercussions are festering or what the consequences will be in other areas. For the time being, all macroeconomic indicators continue strong, partly because of the healthy ties between Mexico and north America.

For now, the issue is in the hands of the judiciary, which has a duty to deliver a fair verdict. Mexican citizens, uncertain about whether the judges will be fair, are experiencing a return to a past in which they routinely distrusted Mexico’s institutions and voting system.

If the manazo prevails, the conflict may escalate. The left has the resources and structure to confront the right: the government of the Distrito Federal (Mexico City) is the richest in the country and employs 170,000 bureaucrats. Moreover, the PRD has woven an extensive, and, on occasion corrupt network of social organisations that cover other sections of the metropolitan zone. For the time being, simmering anger is evident in Mexico City. The presidential election is still more than a year away. The anger has time to spread.

A peculiarity of the Mexican democratic transition is that it happened in isolation. The world was indifferent to Mexico’s domestic social conflicts prior to the repression in 1968 and the electoral fraud in 1988. All progressive governments, including Cuba, were seduced by the liberal foreign policies of its authoritarian regime. Europe looked the other way arguing that Mexico was key to the United States’s security, and the US disregarded principle for the sake of stability on its southern border.

Today, in 2005, Mexico is a member of the community of democratic nations.

The international media has reacted critically, without distinction of ideology or continent, to the campaign against Andrés Manuel López Obrador. In this, it accurately identifies the elements of a conflict that casts doubt on the application of basic democratic rules. It is clear that the source of the conflict does not lie in Obrador’s candidacy but in the betrayal by others of those principles.

At present, restoring democratic rules, including the social order, and reversing this return to the past, depends on Mexico’s judicial power and the international community. While we wait for their verdict, the diagnosis is very clear: Mexico’s democracy is at risk.

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