Anger shows through in Mexico’s election

July 20, 2009

Shane Dillingham and Afsaneh Moradian report from Oaxaca in the aftermath of elections that produced gains for the former authoritarian ruling party.

MEXICO'S midterm elections on July 5 highlighted the severe political and economic crisis facing the country.

The elections for congressional seats in the lower house of Congress and local government posts saw the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) win a controlling majority (36.6 percent of the vote) in Congress and making advances in statewide elections.

The PRI, which maintained authoritarian rule over the Mexican political system for nearly 70 years until the late 1990s, didn't succeed on the basis of its political appeal. Rather, it gained ground because of the weakness of the other two major parties, the center-left Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) and conservative Party of National Action (PAN), which controls the presidency. In these circumstances, the PRI's electoral machine was able to turn out enough support to give it a majority in Congress.

The PAN's inability to attract voters stems from President Felipe Calderón's disastrous policies in the face of the economic crisis.

Mexican President Felipe Calderón with his wife
Mexican President Felipe Calderón with his wife (Francisco Santos)

Mexico's economy, and in particular its tourism industry, have been hit hard by the fallout from the swine flu outbreak. Further, Calderón has failed to formulate any national recovery plan. Thus, the emergency funds he allotted for the swine flu crisis were directed toward helping major hotels and restaurants, but did nothing for working-class Mexicans.

The scale of the economic crisis in Mexico can't be overstated. The country is experiencing a broad decline in employment. The economy is tightly tied to the U.S., with industrial zones along the border and in the interior seeing a drop of up to 40 percent in exports to the U.S. Remittances from Mexicans working in the U.S. were also down by 19.8 percent in May.

Overall, the gross domestic product is expected to contract by 6.3 percent according to the Bank of Mexico.

Rather than confronting this crisis, Calderón has dumped large amounts of money and human resources into his war against drug trafficking cartels, which has only increased the level of violence in Mexico and seems to be failing even on its own terms.

The Mexican left and international human rights organizations have also pointed out how the drug war has been used to repress social mobilizations in Mexico. Human Rights Watch noted that many of the first detentions made by the Mexican army were of social movement activists in northern Mexico.

In addition, a recent scandal over a fire at a privatized state-run day care center stirred anger throughout the country. In spite of the horrifying images of charred children recovered from the building, not a single official has been held accountable for the disaster, due to personal ties to high-ranking PAN and PRI officials.

ON THE other hand, Mexico's liberal and left forces are in disarray.

After the 2006 election in which Calderon was declared the winner of a vote that many people thought was stolen, the center-left PRD's candidate, Andrés Manuel López Obrador (or AMLO, as he is referred to) led a mass social mobilization to contest the outcome.

But AMLO's personalistic style of politics has alienated many, and the PRD's internal divisions mean that it has no clear alternative project that local party campaigns could build off of. In fact, while AMLO insisted that he still considers himself part of the PRD, he actively campaigned for Convergencia, a smaller, left-of-center political alliance.

So with the three main political parties lacking credibility, a substantial discussion began, first on the political left, but extending into the mainstream Mexican media, about the so-called "voto blanco," or null vote--consciously spoiling ballots or writing in an unregistered candidate, not associated with the major parties.

This action had such resonance among ordinary Mexicans that the mainstream political parties, along with governmental institutions such as the Federal Electoral Institution, went on a major campaign to encourage people to vote. On the left, there was a debate between voting for the lesser evil, i.e., the PRD, or nullifying one's vote.

The final result showed a 6 percent null vote nationally, just a percentage point or two higher than normal, but the spread of the discussion reflected general opposition to the mainstream parties and a desire for some kind of alternative politics.

In the southern state of Oaxaca, the null vote reached 10 percent of ballots cast, the result of the first organized null vote campaign, spearheaded by the teachers union and the Popular Assembly of the Peoples of Oaxaca.

With 60 percent of Oaxacans staying home on Election Day, the null votes represented an angry and vocal minority, and the higher degree of political mobilization in the state. In June, hundreds of thousands of teachers and their supporters marched through Oaxaca to commemorate the third anniversary of the violent repression of the teachers' movement of 2006.

In summer 2006, the state government's violence against a peaceful teachers' encampment sparked a popular rebellion that mobilized not only some 70,000 teachers, but hundreds of thousands of ordinary Oaxacans to call for the ouster of the corrupt and illegitimate governor, Ulises Ruiz Ortiz. The movement grew, primarily demanding the ouster of the governor, but also creating a popular assembly that envisioned a radically different type of government based on participatory democracy.

Eventually, federal police were called in to put down the movement, but not before the population had been radicalized through community assemblies and the building of barricades to protect neighborhoods against police and paramilitaries.

The movement was unsuccessful in its attempt overthrow the governor, but the struggle is far from over, and Oaxaca still simmers with discontent. The governor's violent rule continues, with political prisoners remaining incarcerated and political assassinations occurring with impunity. There are ongoing campaigns to win the release of the political prisoners, and to stop a Canadian mine company from excavating in a nearby town.

The elections show the popular anger at a crisis that seems to have no end, and the lack of a clear political alternative. Locally in Oaxaca, as well as nationally, the political left is fragmented, and it is unclear how people will respond in the coming months. The Oaxaca movement has yet to recover politically from the defeat of 2006. Nationally, the left is struggling with how to continue to build social movements with strong bases without the participation of the PRD, which despite its longstanding connection to grassroots organizing has increasingly become part of a bankrupt political establishment.

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