Flirting with Danger: Mexican Presidential Campaign Grows Tense

Part of COHA’s ongoing coverage of Mexico’s 2006 Presidential Elections. Other articles in this series include:

Mexico Steps Back from the Electoral Brink, but Perilous Days Likely to Lie Ahead (June 19, 2006)
Mexican Campaign Turns Dirty as López Obrador Stretches his Lead (March 20, 2006)
Mexico’s Important Presidential Campaign: Behind the Smiling Faces and Big Talk (January 26, 2006)
Madrazo-Gordillo Split Poses a Serious Problem for the PRI and for Mexico (September 6, 2005)

  • Mexico crackles with anxiety as the July 2 presidential vote approaches; growing bitterness threatens the country’s newfound stability
  • The seeds of deep political divisiveness planted during the campaign could present grave challenges for the incoming government
  • President Fox is largely to blame for the race’s polarization, as his constant interventions – some in violation of electoral regulations – have led opposition candidates to complain of an “election by the state” and have done grievous damage to the tattered remains of his reputation
  • Mounting social unrest has added to an already volatile mix, leading some to fear that a potential post-ballot dispute could quickly turn nasty and further compromise Mexico’s still unconsolidated democratic institutions and traditions

With just under a month to go until Mexico’s July 2 presidential election, deep uncertainties have taken hold of the country. As the top two contenders, left-leaning Andrés Manuel López Obrador of the Partido de la Revolución Democrática (PRD) and Felipe Calderón Hinojosa of the ruling conservative Partido de Acción Nacional (PAN), begin their final campaign drives, the two men appear to be in a virtual tie. Some polls suggest that Calderón may hold a wafer-thin advantage – a dramatic reversal of the situation as little as two months ago when López Obrador’s lead seemed insurmountable. Yet the numbers are still unsettled, and much will depend on the June 6 debate, where Calderón and López Obrador will square off on live television.

Preparations for the ballot have been colored with a sense of fear and apprehension by the chilling prospect of polling day chaos rivaling the 1988 near-crisis, when only an unconcealed vote fraud ensured a victory for ruling Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI) candidate Carlos Salinas over leftwing challenger Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas. If a political crisis is indeed looming, it could destroy the prized “stable transition” between administrations which is vitally important to both the country’s democracy and economy, and in doing so could likely represent the single greatest blemish on President Vicente Fox’s already pockmarked legacy.

Mexican politics have reached a decisive moment. Several troubling trends suggest that the country may be careening towards chaos, as recent political and social events combining to create a climate of grave disquietude. First, in recent months the campaigns of López Obrador and Calderón have become layered with polarizing polemic, and Fox’s interjections into the race have only exacerbated tensions, heightening the possibility that July 2 will produce a disputed outcome that defies simple political bargaining. Second, new social turmoil, highlighted by the recent violence in San Salvador Atenco, seems indicative of a potentially explosive atmosphere. While it is unlikely that Mexico will sink into a long lasting crisis at this point, even a short term flare-up sparked by the election could have profound economic and political repercussions for the country, which could also negatively affect the current immigration debate with the United States.

An Infant Democracy Is Put to the Test

The race to succeed Fox began long before the official campaign season kicked off this January. As early as last summer, López Obrador, bolstered by a successful term as mayor of Mexico City, seemed likely to cruise to victory in July. A desafuero (impeachment) attempt in the spring of 2005 by his PAN and PRI rivals, which would have barred the mayor from a presidential bid, failed in the face of widespread public outrage, which only served to strengthen the perredista’s hand. Fox, largely seen as the force behind the desafuero, ultimately caved to popular pressure and sullenly bent the rules to end the proceeding. The retreat was illusory, however, as the president continued undeterred to jab almost daily at López Obrador with opaque references to the “dangers of populism.” High-profile primary contests in both the PAN and PRI – the former surprising in its outcome and the latter depressingly corrupt – partially eroded López Obrador’s dominance. Despite such assaults on the system, for the first months of the campaign, it appeared that the former mayor enjoyed a ground swelling of support which seemingly would be impossible to trump. Most analysts saw his triumph as a fait accompli and predicted a relatively stable transfer of power. Such an eventuality would have been made all the more remarkable by its historic context: not only would it have represented the first presidential election occurring in democratic Mexico, but it would also have signified a dramatic shift from right to left in the country’s balance of power. But as of now, López Obrador’s advantage has vanished, and recent events have complicated the prospects for an uneventful and orderly succession, making the current juncture one of the most explosive in Mexican electoral history.

A series of events wore away López Obrador’s lead, leaving him to scramble in the current dead-even situation. A great deal of López Obrador’s grief can be attributed to the Calderón campaign’s vicious attack ads, primarily television commercials, which labeled the perredista “a danger for Mexico” and compared him to Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez, even though the two have never met or spoken. Although entirely repugnant, this strategy nevertheless proved successful in swaying enough undecided voters to shift their preferences – at least when it came to opinion polls. Calderón’s ramped up aggressiveness was paralleled by a subtle escalation in Fox’s so-called “shadow campaign” of PAN party promotion which, despite nearly total citizen dissatisfaction over the government’s shortcomings, provided some boost for the proponents of continuity, even if it danced perilously close to rules against executive intervention in the electoral process.

Calderón also benefited from a number of tactical missteps on López Obrador’s part. The perredista refused to participate in the first televised debate, a decision he sought to later explain with his fears of a coordinated bushwhacking by Calderón and PRI candidate Roberto Madrazo Pintado. Nonetheless, his actions appeared to lend modest support to those who questioned his democratic credentials, and gave his opponents an unchallenged forum for their ideas. The debate organizers’ decision to place an empty podium on the stage to represent López Obrador’s absence only added stature to the four candidates who did participate. Furthermore, the former mayor’s subsequent misplayed attempts at damage control following an ill-advised outburst in March, when he told Fox to “shut up,” left lingering questions about his “presidentiality.”

Politics of Chaos

While effective, the aggressive tactics Calderón’s team employed to jack their man back into the race came at a high price, as these maneuvers directly contributed to a sharp polarization of Mexican politics. When López Obrador snapped at President Fox, he did so with some justification. For many months the president has wielded an unremitting publicity assault, behaving as though he was himself back on the campaign trail, boots and all. This effort has included harsh attacks on the PRD candidate, unabashed sponsorship of the PAN candidate – who now happens to be his chosen successor – and shameless promotion of the government’s most meager achievements. By the time that the Federal Elector Institute (IFE) ultimately ruled that the president’s actions had violated campaign regulations, the damage had been done – López Obrador’s confidence had been rattled and his lead erased.

Other PAN stratagems drew the ire of many observers, just as they pressed the outer limits of legality. The February visit of former Spanish Prime Minister José María Aznar, which saw the ultramontane spokesman enthusiastically endorse Calderón’s candidacy, was particularly inflammatory, as well as illegal. On June 1 the IFE fined the PAN about $13,000 for the transgression. Likewise, Calderón’s provocative “danger to Mexico” ad campaign was judged to have gone one step too far, and the IFE forced the party to recall the spots, albeit only after the ads already had attracted tremendous national attention.

But it wasn’t long until the backlash was unleashed. Perredistas across the nation began to speak of a “dirty war” against their candidate. PRI partisans, watching their candidate’s unchecked plummet, chimed in with talk of an ongoing elección del estado – literally an “election of the state” – where the ruling government’s energies, resources, and privileges were put to work in order to ensure the triumph of the preferred oficialista candidate. These suspicions were underscored in late May, when a group of PRD legislators charged that under ex-director Josefina Vázquez Mota – now Calderón’s campaign manager – the Secretaria de Desarollo Social (Sedesol, the social development secretariat) likely diverted nearly 55 million pesos from a rural housing program to the Calderón campaign. Any reappearance of this insidious genre of electoral fraud, perfected by the PRI regime from 1917 to 2000, was particularly infuriating to the PRD and other left-wing political groups, which had been systematically denied power under Miguel de la Madrid (1982-1988) as a result of ballot box fraud. Similarly, it had suffered particular repression under the corrupt regime of Carlos Salinas (1988-1994). Some noted that though the ruling party’s name had changed, its behavior had not.

This perception of an unfair playing field led to Madrazo’s cynically suggestion, on May 19, that an alliance between the PRD and PRI would be the only effective counterweight to the government’s intervention. While the priista noted that it would be up to the parties themselves to arrange such a union, he asserted that Fox’s refusal to stop behaving as Calderón’s campaign manager “obliges us, as a party, to change strategies, because we are no longer competing against the PAN, but rather against the state and all that it signifies.” While eleven days later Madrazo discarded the possibility of an official alliance between the two parties, his public volte-face did not pacify the situation.

Many analysts have speculated on the possibility that some priistas, especially local delegations, will split from the party’s widely unpopular presidential candidate – who is considered to be both a dead fish and out of the race. They will then throw their support to López Obrador instead, a development which the PRD standard bearer has publicly welcomed. Given the perredista’s background in the PRI and his ideological proximity to its historic principles, such a possibility would not be altogether surprising. Increasingly, it is appearing likely that many PRI partisans will be catalyzed into opposing Calderón in a 2006 variation on the “useful vote” strategy which helped oust the PRI from power six years earlier. This electoral tactic has been backed by prominent PRI leaders, including Dulce María Sauri and Manuel Bartlett, who have been persuaded to publicly backed López Obrador. There is also reason to believe that some priistas will break towards Calderón, although the political calculations behind that decision are less clear.

This migration of PRI partisans away from Madrazo’s disintegrating campaign has, in one respect, left the country effectively polarized between López Obrador and Calderón, and has perhaps become a struggle between left and right. In this context, the galvanization of the grassroots will be profoundly important: Calderón supporters ardently believe theirs is a struggle to prevent a dark leftist force from gaining power in Mexico, while López Obrador supporters feel they are fighting an entrenched and unscrupulous establishment, which is seeking to once again deny them office. In a May 25 interview with the Financial Times, PRD leader Manuel Camacho Solis observed that that “the middle class has become divided and the popular classes are very angry now. There are going to be demonstrations…that will make it very hard to govern, no matter who wins.”

A Political Watershed

Given this embittered atmosphere and a sense of substantial mistrust concerning the electoral process, it is not inconceivable that an acrimonious post-ballot dispute could quickly deteriorate in chaos. A close outcome could very well be heatedly contested, allegations of fraud and foul play might fly, and in the event of a narrow Calderón victory, his dirty campaign tactics will not be forgiven nor forgotten by López Obrador supporters.

While the IFE is among the most effective and respected electoral bodies in Latin America today, and is clearly capable of administering the ballot, the race very well could have been visibly destabilized even before the first vote had been cast. In this respect, the IFE has not been as successful, as the administration of the race – or lack thereof – has been continually questioned. The two opposition parties have often asked the IFE (whose board was appointed without the participation of the PRD) to be a more active arbiter of the campaign. Frequently, however, the IFE’s rulings against slanderous tactics have amounted to closing the barn door after the horse was gone, and they have consistently failed to force candidates to elevate the tone of the debate. Because the IFE has not been able to address these controversial – and generally illegal – campaign tactics, perredistas can be counted on to display considerable bitterness in the event of defeat, and could even resort to a destabilizing legal challenges of the outcome.

The possibility of serious post-election disputes would not be an historical aberration. Both PAN and PRD staged large public demonstrations during the 1980s and 1990s following blatantly fraudulent votes, and the latter party gained a mostly undeserved reputation for unruliness. In the aftermath of the controversial 1988 ballot, however, opposition candidate Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas saved the country from a significantly larger crisis by choosing not to call for massive protests. This would not necessarily be the case with López Obrador, who occasionally has been prone to impulsive outbursts and otherwise has harbored a great deal of resentment towards the political order. Calderón is perhaps slightly less likely to encourage confrontational mobilizations, but a stinging loss could very well encourage PAN legislators to stonewall against a López Obrador government.

The potential therefore exists for the election to not only serve as an affirmation of Mexico’s democracy, but as a showcase of its failings. Any major post-ballot dispute would have been brought about by the inability of the political system to adequately address a number of concerns about both its procedures and its degree of inclusiveness, not to mention the Fox government’s unwillingness to place the cause of Mexican democracy above all other interests.

A President Breaches his Obligation

Fox, who will forever be remembered as the man who defeated the PRI, has failed pitifully to cement his legacy as a great Mexican democratic reformer. That mantle perhaps more rightly belongs on Ernesto Zedillo (1994-2000), whose conscious non-intervention in the 2000 electoral process and doughty refusal to yield to the old-school authoritarian elements of his party not only made Fox’s victory possible but calmed the country in a time of great uncertainty. In stark contrast to his predecessor’s principled helmsmanship, however, Fox has displayed an alarming incapacity for such high minded leadership. Once a symbol of geniality and decency, today Fox is aptly being seen as a person more motivated by mean spirited and basically unfair instincts than high-minded principles.

The 2006 presidential elections are profoundly important because they offer an opportunity for Mexican democratic practices to be solidified through repetition and institutionalization. In this regard, ensuring a fair and stable electoral process and a tranquil transition quite properly should have been Fox’s greatest duty to his country, a duty which he has now totally shirked. The current political crisis in Mexico can largely be blamed on the President’s persistent and provocative interjections into the campaign, despite strictures – both legal and moral – against his doing so. These intrusions – combined with Calderón’s attack strategy – have fostered political divisiveness, dragged the debate to cloacal lows, alienated many voters, and left Mexican democracy in very deep trouble. Although the prospect of a post-ballot crisis is alarming, in reality, the widespread dissatisfaction with the country’s current political situation is likely to trigger repercussions long after July 2. Fox’s free-fall lack of statesmanship regarding the election has truly been his greatest disservice to Mexico after a tenure marked by embarrassing indecision, a weak-willed and limited vision, and a Forrest Gump-like capacity to deal with complexity.

Mexico at a Crossroads

Mexico’s social instability has underscored Fox’s lack of a single grand accomplishment during his presidency. Ongoing drug and crime problems have battered the country’s collective consciousness, and recent eruptions of violence have exacerbated fears that the country is on the brink of an abyss. Zapatista leader Subcomandante Marcos – now calling himself Delegado Cero as he continues his anti-political “other campaign” – described the country as in a “state of rage and social indignation.” Fifty percent of those interviewed for a survey published on May 12 in the Mexico City daily Excelsior, reportedly feared that the government was close to losing control of the country.

The current atmosphere of rampant violence is eerily reminiscent of the 1994 presidential contest, when political assassinations and a wave of drug-fueled violence led many Mexicans to speak of their nation’s “colombianization.” The psychological impact of unremitting lawlessness has been profound, and there is a generalized sense that corruption is pervasive and cartels are omnipotent: for example, when a helicopter carrying the head of public security crashed last September, lurid rumors swirled that narcotraffickers were responsible. Relentless cartel battles raging in the North and West of the country, as well as gruesome attacks on police – including a series of high profile beheadings in April – are harsh reminders for the Fox government that it has failed to make even a dent in improving national security.

In recent months this stream of unchecked organized crime has been punctuated by startling outbreaks of a major disorder worsened by clumsy government responses. A late April steelworkers’ union strike in Michoacan, the port city of Lázaro Cardenas, ended in violence when the police attempted to break the occupation of a factory, resulting in two deaths. The labor actions came after the government had less than tactfully managed a leadership dispute within the union, that lead to a confrontation. In early May, a police raid on grey-market flower vendors in San Salvador Atenco in the state of Mexico was met with a violent response by angry residents who threw Molotov cocktails and swung machetes at the officers. Three thousand riot troops were eventually sent in, and after a day, an uneasy calm was restored. Peace had a high cost, however, as government forces were captured by the news media openly using excessive force, a reality which Public Security Secretary Eduardo Medina Mora did not deny. Beyond the brutality, troubling allegations of sexual abuse by the troops added to the Atenco raid’s growing notoriety. These incidents left Mexicans deeply shaken, and some began to wonder if the country was beginning to reach a boiling point, in which events were well out of control of even the highest authorities.

Buttressing Mexico

The remaining weeks before July 2 are vital for Mexico’s future, and several important challenges must be addressed. Achieving political détente is of the highest urgency, as a continued escalation of tension among the several campaign camps will only prime the country for potentially tragic post-election detonations. Officials in the IFE must promote such a harmonious resolution by acting both rapidly and with a judicious hand in order to avoid additional allegations of misbehavior. Although it is still uncertain at this late date which candidate ultimately holds the edge, both Calderón and López Obrador should be called upon to grasp the magnitude of the current juncture, and take the last weeks of the campaign as an opportunity to dignify rather than degrade the nation’s political debate. Although it is probably too late to do much about his own political decline, President Fox remains the most important actor. He must earnestly and meaningfully commit to electoral neutrality, and recognize that the sad remnants of his tattered personal reputation are truly at stake. For Fox, ever a man obsessed with establishing a legacy, the coming weeks could not be more important.