Election Day discontent in Mexico

June 10, 2015

Afsaneh Moradian and Héctor A. Rivera report from Mexico on the midterm elections--and the teachers' strike in Oaxaca that is challenging education reform.

MEXICO HELD midterm elections on June 7 in a day marked by confrontations between police and demonstrators in many southern states, including dissident teachers from the left wing of the Mexican teachers union.

Expecting resistance in the face of calls for an election boycott by left and labor organizations, the federal government deployed more than 10,000 police and military personnel to the south, effectively militarizing the electoral process. In southwestern Oaxaca, in particular, the clashes over voting coincided with a one-week-old strike by left-wing teachers, which closed schools in many of the country's poorest states.

On the whole, there weren't any big surprises coming from the midterms. As expected, President Enrique Peña Nieto's ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) performed strongly--after mobilizing its broad patronage network, receiving 29 percent of the votes cast nationwide.

Most parties performed as expected in pre-election predictions. In second place after the PRI, the conservative National Action Party (PAN) got 21 percent of the vote, while the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD)--a one-time left opposition party that has embraced neoliberalism and suffered a sharp loss of support after is leaders in Guerrero were implicated in the abduction of 43 students from a teachers' college in Ayotzinapa--received 11 percent.

Oaxacan protesters clash with police on Election Day
Oaxacan protesters clash with police on Election Day

The new party formed by former PRD leader Andrés Manuel López Obrador's, the leftist Movement of National Regeneration (MORENA), won 8 percent of the vote, edging out the scandalously corrupt Ecologist Green Party of Mexico (PVEM), which operates in coalition with the PRI.

Despite the lack of surprises in the outcome, however, the midterm elections reflected the deep crisis of legitimacy faced by the government, as Argentinian Marxist and commentator Guillermo Almeyra put it.

Voter turnout was under 50 percent, according to press reports. When intentionally spoiled ballots and protest votes for smaller parties are added in, only about two in five Mexican voters cast a ballot for a party that is part of established politics. In all, less than 15 percent of eligible voters cast a vote for the ruling PRI, despite all its vote-buying, intimidation and fraud.

For the coming years, the PRI will have to resort to its alliance with the pliant PVEM or other smaller parties. Beyond these alliances in the Chamber of Deputies, the lower house of the Mexican Congress, the regime will continue employing the kind of violence and repression it mobilized during the election as the chief guarantee that it can continue its agenda of neoliberal reforms.

IN OAXACA, the strike by the National Union of Education Workers' (SNTE) Section 22--the public school teachers union in Oaxaca--began on Monday, June 1. By Wednesday, strikers had blocked access to the airport in Oaxaca City, blockaded the supply of gasoline to the city and raided the offices of the Instituto Nacional Electoral (INE), the institution that oversees elections.

The escalation in tactics came after the union leadership decided to block voting for the first time, instead of merely calling for a boycott or for people to nullify their ballots. Teachers who invaded the INE offices ripped up ballots and burned them, forcing the INE to make a statement that it would be difficult to hold elections in Oaxaca.

Section 22 is in the process of negotiating its contract and the terms on which a federal education "reform" law passed in 2013 will be implemented in Oaxaca. Already, the union has been successful in defeating part of the law that requires a standardized evaluation for teachers that counts towards performance reviews. In addition, the federal government backed down on its threat to withhold pay for the 70,000 teachers on strike this week.

While strikes, roadblocks and blocking the airport are typical actions for the union, taking over the main gasoline plant for Oaxaca and effectively leaving the city and its surrounding towns without gas was a new tactic that showed the determination of the union to fight the state and federal government to preserve public education and job security for Oaxaca's teachers and teachers throughout the country.

On Friday, June 5, the federal government responded by sending 7,000 heavily armed federal police and army and navy troops, backed by armed tanks, to confront the teachers and guarantee that the midterm elections took place. The union decided to stand down and opened up gas stations and strategic traffic intersections. The union called for a boycott of the election and for delegations in each of the state's eight regions to organize demonstrations.

After the election, the media reported that 98 percent of voting sites in Oaxaca were open and operational on Sunday. But this contradicts initial statements made by the INE and reports on the ground that many polling sites did not have sufficient ballots.

At the moment, contract talks with the federal government have stalled, and a battle to defend public education and tenure for teachers lies ahead. Oaxaca teachers are providing an example of the organization and militancy that will be needed to oppose the government's education deform agenda and win some gains along the way. These teachers need the support and solidarity of teachers, union members and all workers in the U.S.

GOING INTO the election on June 7, the Mexican left was divided.

As the teachers strike in Oaxaca attests, the call for a boycott of the vote had widespread support in the south of the country. As for participants in the election, four parties were vying for the support of left voters in the midterm. The PRD and the Labor Party (PT) both lost votes to MORENA and to the Citizen's Movement (MC). While the PT risks losing its status as a party if it does not end up with over 3 percent of the vote, MC performed strongly in Jalisco and nearly beat the PVEM at the national level.

According to journalist and academic John A. Ackerman, the results are a clear victory for MORENA over the political establishment. Arguing that MORENA represents the power of popular campaigns close to the people and their concerns, Ackerman claims that it is only a matter of time before the new party becomes Mexico's third political force, effectively deposing the PRD as the official opposition party.

Nevertheless, important challenges remain ahead. Ackerman believes that the most important task for MORENA is to avoid becoming like the PRD--corrupt and sold out to the political system. Ackerman believes another important challenge is to find them means to overcome electoral fraud in upcoming elections--the solution, he argues, is citizen participation in the political process.

For his part, Guillermo Almeyra argues that it will be difficult for MORENA to change from its purely electoral strategy because of the conservative caudillos at the top of the party. Nevertheless, Almeyra believes that the membership of MORENA can take the party in a different direction if they force it to focus on social struggles, and not just winning seats in government.

The ongoing teachers strike--which is hitting the hardest in Oaxaca, Guerrero, Chiapas, Michoacán and Veracruz--shows the potential for social movements to become the base for building political projects.

If, in the fall, MORENA had supported the Ayotzinapa parents, protesting for the return of the missing students, it would have performed stronger in the midterm elections. It remains to be seen if the party has learned from that mistake.

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