Can a reformer win Mexico’s presidency?

May 14, 2012

Edgar Esquivel looks at a reformer's campaign to take the Mexican presidency away from the country's two dominant conservative parties.

DESPITE A media blackout, the populist center-left candidate Andres Manuel López Obrador, widely known as his initials AMLO, is once again filling plazas across Mexico as he seeks the presidency for a second time.

AMLO narrowly lost the 2006 presidential election through widespread fraud. Six years later, there is no questioning his continued popularity--the crowds he attracts can't be matched by the combined turnouts for two right-wing establishment candidates. Unlike his opponents, AMLO, a slow speaker with charisma, uses no teleprompter and speaks from the heart.

With only two months remaining before the Mexican presidential election July 1, the country's very questionable Federal Electoral Institute (IFE, according to its initials in Spanish) has finally and officially allowed candidates to begin campaigning. Many have wondered why official campaigning had been delayed until such a short time remains. But considering Mexico's political culture and the institutions tailored to benefit the interest of the elite, it isn't hard to see why.

Andrés Manuel López Obrador speaks to a large rally of supporters
Andrés Manuel López Obrador speaks to a large rally of supporters

There are two establishment contenders for the Mexican presidency. One is Enrique Pena Nieto of the old Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which ran Mexico as a virtual one-party state for more than 70 years. The other leading candidate is Josefina Vasquez Mota of the ruling right-wing National Action Party (PAN).

For his part, AMLO is running as the candidate of the Progressive Broad Front--founded in 2006 to unite the Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD), the Workers Party and Convergence Party.

AMLO continues to speak in defense of the mass protests that followed the fraudulent 2006 election:

The sit-in at Reforma and the Zócalo [plaza] was carried out to prevent violence. It was very costly, and we were highly questioned for it, yet I must say that had we not taken that decision, people would have been killed. We want change through a peaceful channel. We do not want violence.

In that earlier campaign, AMLO ran on his record as a progressive mayor of Mexico City from 2000 to 2006. AMLO has again made the fight against poverty and inequality the centerpiece of his campaign for the presidency, maintaining that poverty is inexcusable in a country so rich in natural resources.

He extols the benevolence of the Mexican people and the cultural richness of its indigenous communities. He aims to project himself as a man of the people, and as one who understands the historical suffering and disenfranchisement of millions of Mexicans--a stance that nearly catapulted him to the presidency once before.

AMLO's ACTIONS have generated fear among Mexico's ruling elite, who see them as a threat to their free market-oriented agenda of privatization of state enterprises and services. In the run-up to the 2006 election, the government of then-President Vicente Fox co-sponsored a PRI-PAN witch-hunt against AMLO over misdemeanor charges following the violation of minor laws in the construction of a much-needed road connecting a hospital in Mexico City.

Fox, a PAN leader who had won the presidency on a "nationalist" platform in July 2000, ended seven decades of PRI rule. His shocking victory brought down a regime that held power longer than any other in modern time, including that of "communist" China.

Fox's victory clearly represented public discontent over decades of government corruption, scandals, economic decay and immense social inequalities. However, to the majority of Mexicans who showed up to the polls in record numbers, his victory also represented a long-sought hope.

But unexpectedly for the majority of the poor, Fox's political ideology quickly shifted to the right. He abandoned the centrist and "progressive" platform he had ran on and adhered to the model imposed by the architects of free-market mechanisms: Washington, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and World Trade Organization.

Under Fox's term, Mexico neglected national industries, which was used as a pretext for privatization, an action that AMLO strongly condemned. Fox also went on the offensive against public-sector workers and targeted an already weakened labor movement. Fox was also George W. Bush's strongest ally for his proposed hemispheric-wide Free Trade Agreement of the Americas (FTAA) in 2001.

Fox ignored the country's horrific social conditions that had brought him to power and took up what his PRI predecessors' left off--by implementing the pro-business neoliberal agenda. Nevertheless, corruption and nepotism also escalated to new heights under Fox's six-year term. And in defending the "Washington consensus," he was constantly caught in disputes with an emerging progressive front among Latin American governments.

The political establishment's war against AMLO began in 2006 when Fox attempted to strip him of the same political immunity, or fuero, that for over 200 years has protected Mexico's ruling political families from prosecution. But their plan failed, and instead worked to advance AMLO's popularity.

Following this political drama, the largest public marches ever recorded in Mexico's history were organized against AMLO's ouster. Although the Mexican Congress voted in favor of removing AMLO from immunity in April 2005, Fox, under tremendous pressure from millions of angry peasants and the threat of civil unrest, overruled the decision and pardoned him.

But Mexico's reactionary forces would not stop their war against him. As the 2006 running officially unfolded, PAN candidate Felipe Calderon launched a vicious and for the most part dishonest campaign against him, supported by the powerful state apparatus. Illegal campaign overspending by his party and many other coercive acts went unpunished by the IFE, the election authority.

The PAN's campaign alleged that AMLO was not only a danger to the Republic, but a threat to private property--and that his election would lead to an Hugo Chávez-style "dictatorship" in Mexico. Even so, only electoral fraud could uphold their neoliberal order. With IFE vote counters turning a blind eye to election violations, AMLO lost the election by just 0.56 percent of the vote.

The media also played a role in stealing the 2006 election from AMLO. Televisa, Mexico's largest multimedia conglomerate, has over the years formed a strong alliance with the country's right-wing political establishment in the PRI and the PAN. In this year's elections, the media will, without a doubt, once again play a major role in covering up any foul play--just like it did in stealing the presidency from reformer Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas in the 1988 election and again from AMLO in 2006.

THEIR FAVORITE to win this year's crucial election is the PRI's Enrique Peña Nieto, the much-hyped fresh face of the country's former ruling dynasty, who is married to popular Televisa soap opera actress Angelica Rivera.

Yet over the past few months, the frontrunner in Mexico's presidential race has stumbled. In December, he attended the Guadalajara International Book Fair, where over several minutes on national television, he appeared unable to correctly name a book that has influenced his life, other than the Bible. And even then, Peña Nieto fumbled when asked about Biblical verses that had particularly touched him.

Peña Nieto's blunder was not helped by his teenage daughter, Paulina, who re-tweeted a message of jokes against her father that criticized "a bunch of jerks who are part of the prole (proletariat) and only criticize those they envy." (Prole is a derogatory term constantly used in Mexico by the wealthy to insult working-class people).

Pena Nieto didn't help his cause either when the well-known Mexican intellectual and author Carlos Fuentes delivered the most bruising criticism: "This gentleman has the right not to read me," he said, referring to his internationally known books and writings. "What he does not have the right to is to be president of Mexico, based on ignorance."

With an already flawed record, Peña Nieto, who served as governor of the state of Mexico, will attempt to overcome his party's notorious and corrupt legacy as President Calderon's PAN tumbles in popularity--over Calderon's U.S.-sponsored crackdown in an unwinnable war on drugs, which has left a near 60,000 dead.

Those currently pulling for Peña Nieto's bid are from the PRI's old guard. The party's elite is now trying to clean up its image by funneling money to a friendly news media attempting to impose their choice.

For its part, the PAN's record over the past 12 years in power will be a major factor in the vote--and their candidate's ratings in the polls are sure to dwindle. The question is whether the PRI's corrupt past and PAN's failures will open the way to a victory by AMLO.

While seeking to project a more moderate and tolerant image in 2012, AMLO has not backed away from his calls for fundamental change in Mexico. He attacks the deep-seated corruption, cynicism and impunity that he believes exist at all levels of the government. He has been an outspoken critic of private-sector oligopolies that arose during the country's economic liberalization and privatization of state-owned companies. He considers equality and fair play to be integral to a better and democratic Mexico. AMLO has also declared that "there will never be democracy if there is not justice for all."

AMLO is approaching the 2012 election differently than 2006, using social media outlets to expand his appeal and break the media's blackout. And amid rising crime and uncertainty, AMLO has already garnered the support of many who rejected him six years ago. These include bourgeois intellectuals, wealthy university students and progressive celebrities who are fed up with the failed establishment.

Whether this will be enough to bring AMLO to victory remains to be seen.

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