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Disputed election sets the stage for struggle
Mexico "perched on a powder keg"

July 14, 2006 | Pages 1 and 7

LANCE SELFA looks at the battle over Mexico's disputed presidential election and what the future holds.

WITH MORE than half a million of his supporters filling Mexico City's main square, the Zócalo, on July 8, Andrés Manuel López Obrador launched a campaign to demand a vote-by-vote recount of ballots cast in the July 2 presidential election.

López Obrador (known in Mexico by his initials "AMLO") is charging that fraud, organized by the current President Vicente Fox's right-wing National Action Party (PAN), robbed him of election as Mexico's president.

As Socialist Worker went to press, an audit of votes cast by the Federal Electoral Institute (IFE) put Felipe Calderón of the PAN ahead of AMLO by about 244,000 votes, or 0.57 percent of the more than 42 million votes cast.

"If we let them foist [this result] on us, this will be a step backward," AMLO told the crowd packed into the Zócalo. "[Fox] won the presidency because of democratic advances. And when he got into power, he became a traitor to democracy."

AMLO, who leads the center-left Party of Democratic Revolution (PRD), ended his speech by calling for a nationwide mobilization in defense of democracy to begin July 12, culminating in another mass mobilization in Mexico City four days later.

Fox, Calderón, the media and business leaders are all calling for AMLO to throw in the towel. And the U.S., Canadian and Spanish governments, among others, sent congratulations to Calderón, effectively recognizing him as the president-elect.

But the campaign for a full recount--and efforts by Calderón supporters, reminiscent of the Bush-Cheney 2000 campaign in Florida, to block it--could go on as long as September 6, when Mexican law says a president must be declared.

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WHATEVER THE electoral court decides, the July 2 vote revealed a highly polarized Mexican society.

Assuming the current vote totals weren't completely fabricated, Calderón and López Obrador each ended up with about 36 or 37 percent of the presidential vote. This represents a decline of 5 or 6 percentage points in support for the PAN from the last election in 2000, and an almost doubling of the PRD's vote at the presidential level.

Opinion polls showed a clear class and regional polarization in the vote, with the middle class and wealthy and the area closest to the U.S. (and thus most economically integrated into the American economy) voting for the PAN, and the southern region of the country and the poorer sections of the population voting for the PRD.

Meanwhile, the Party of the Institutional Revolution (PRI), which ruled Mexico for 70 years until Fox's victory in 2000, could barely get one in five Mexicans to vote for it. So the vote results show the further collapse of the old one-party state, as its supporters drift into the two larger electoral coalitions.

More importantly, they show that Mexico isn't immune to the rising tide of class and political upheaval that has brought center-left and left governments to power across Latin America. For despite the fact that AMLO's proposals were actually quite moderate, the Mexican neoliberal right, ensconced in the PAN and PRI, portrayed him as a dangerous radical.

And the fact that a large proportion of Mexico's workers and poor voted for him--against the main advocates of free-market policies--shows that a significant section of Mexican society wants a change from the reigning orthodoxy of the last 20 years. To them, AMLO appeared to be the "realistic" way of registering a desire for change.

The Zapatista National Liberation Army's attempt to organize a non-electoral protest movement in the "Other Campaign" and the call by some socialist groups to protest the lack of choice between the PRI, PAN and the PRD choice by spoiling ballots were sidelined.

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IN THE old days of what Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa called "the perfect dictatorship," the PRI used its control of the state apparatus to steal elections openly, buying votes from peasants and workers in party-affiliated organizations or, as took place in the 1988 election, simply fabricating the result after a "computer failure."

Although there's no doubt that the PAN used some of the PRI's tried-and-true methods, including old-fashioned dirty tricks, it got the results it wanted through more insidious ways.

First, and perhaps most importantly, it deliberately created a climate of fear and loathing toward AMLO, aimed at stampeding millions to vote for Calderón to save Mexico from falling into "chaos" if López Obrador won.

From Fox's constant (and illegal) warnings of the dangers of "populism" to the government's military-style attacks against striking miners and the flower vendors of San Salvador Atenco, the aim was to foster a climate of crisis in the lead-up to the elections. The PAN had the help of the main television networks, Televisa and TV Azteca, which repeatedly aired scandalous attack ads against AMLO--and of the IFE, packed with PRI and PAN loyalists, which allowed such tactics to continue.

Second, Fox's party used its control over the electoral apparatus--Florida and Ohio-style--to make it tougher for PRD sympathizers to vote, while facilitating the vote for the PAN. In the wake of the vote, reports emerged of long lines and ballot shortages in PRD-leaning areas, and PRD voters not appearing on official registration lists.

Several Mexico experts on U.S. television consistently lauded the impartiality and professionalism of IFE.

But Mexicans had a different experience. Although PRD supporters had been excluded from the IFE directorate, the ordinary Mexicans were at least willing to give IFE the benefit of the doubt before the election.

But the IFE lost whatever credibility it had when, on election night, it posted preliminary results showing Calderón winning the election, even though it had failed to tally as many as 3 million votes (about 7 percent of the total cast). As commentator Luis Hernández Navarro wrote of the IFE in La Jornada, "The referee is biased."

Third, the PAN maintained a behind-the-scenes alliance with a section of the PRI led by the right-wing teachers' union head Elba Esther Gordillo, which worked to undermine the PRI's official candidate Roberto Madrazo, with whom Gordillo had a well-publicized feud. The result was that PRI governors in northern states promoted a vote for Calderón.

As disputes about the vote emerged after July 2, the PRI as a whole--which is looking forward to forming a governing coalition in the congress with the PAN--vouched for the election, in effect recognizing Calderón as the legitimately elected president.

The Mexican election unfolded in a climate of heightened class struggle--including a strike by teachers in the state of Oaxaca, and nationwide walkouts and protests against government interference in unions.

At the same time, the "Other Campaign" and its organization of international solidarity with the Atenco prisoners points toward possibilities for building a genuine anti-capitalist left alongside the "institutional" center-left represented in the PRD.

Now, a full-blown constitutional crisis has been added to this volatile mix. If the electoral court rules against AMLO and installs Calderón as president, the government will be illegitimate in the eyes of at least half of the Mexican population.

The socialist intellectual Manuel Aguilar Mora argued that the Mexican right and its backers in the State Department wanted to do whatever they could to keep Mexico from joining the Latin American trend of electing left-of-center governments.

"But the right itself, in its reactionary clumsiness, brought the specter of the situation in South America into the Mexican elections when it made the absurd connection of López Obrador to Hugo Chávez," he wrote. "Ironically, the right, with its demented and reactionary neoliberalism, has been the one to throw gasoline on the fire of ideological and political polarization in Mexico. Everything suggests that this will backfire."

Or as Luis Hernández Navarro put it on July 4, "[T]he Mexico of 2006 is not the same as the country of 1988. Now we can count on organizational experience and resistance that didn't exist in 1988. The nation is perched on a powder keg, ready to explode, and the insult to the popular will could light the fuse. No one should be surprised about what could happen in the next few days."

Packed into the Zócalo "like sardines"

SHANE DILLINGHAM reports from Mexico City on last weekend's mass demonstration in defense of democracy.

TO PUNCTUATE the tumultuous days following Mexico's July 2 presidential election, Andres Manuel López Obrador appeared on national television to announce officially that he would contest the results. After detailing allegations of election fraud, AMLO, in an incredible understatement, said he was calling an "informational assembly" in Mexico City's Zócalo, the world's second-largest city square.

As was to be expected, the "informational assembly" turned out to be a massive rally, filling the Zócalo and overflowing into the side streets. One Mexico City newspaper described the participants as "sardines," packed shoulder to shoulder into the massive square.

The crowds consisted overwhelmingly of Mexico City's working-class and poor population, young and old. Everywhere were the yellow and black of AMLO's Party of the Democratic Revolution. The huge crowd chanted "Voto por voto, casilla por casilla" (Vote for vote, poll for poll), and handmade signs read, "Somos pobres perod no tontos" (We are poor but not stupid).

AMLO's speech once again accused President Vicente Fox and his ruling party of conspiring against him. He described the legal battle ahead and then called for a national march, beginning from every part of the country on July 12 and ending with a march in the capital on July 16. He also called for the formation of local committees to protest the election fraud and to defend democracy.

After proposing these plans, AMLO asked the crowd to raise their hands if they agreed. The crowd became a sea of fists and outstretched hands.

After the speech, it took more than two hours for the crowd to file out of the Zócalo. As people slowly moved toward subway entrances, music played, young militants with bullhorns called on people to get organized, and crowds remained behind to discuss what to do next.

The rally proved that huge numbers of people were prepared to take action to defend their vote for AMLO.

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