Mexico at the Edge:Toward a Declaration of Dual Power

Mexico stands at the brink of a social upheaval of major proportions after the Electoral Tribunal threw out most challenges by presidential candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador, leading him to call for the creation of a new government.  (See “Election Decision Favors Felipe Calderon of the Pan.”)  In the face of what he calls a “coup d’état,” Mexico, he says, must create a new republic.  The Mexican government and the Mexican people now face grave and momentous decisions about whether this confrontation will take place and, if it does, whether it will be peaceful or violent.

The Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) legislators’ unprecedented action on September 1, taking over the dais and making it impossible for President Vicente Fox to deliver his state of the union address to Congress, symbolizes the crisis that exists and the confrontation that looms.  Frustrated in his attempt to speak to the Mexican Congress, Fox was forced to provide a hand-written version of the address to congressional leaders and to read the address to the nation by means of a television broadcast.

López Obrador has taken a great gamble by calling for a Constituent Assembly and the launching of a new Republic while he seems to have the support of only perhaps a quarter of the Mexican people.  López Obrador seems to be marching toward the Rubicon, but the question is, is he really prepared to cross over and will plebeian Mexico follow him?  If not, then the question becomes, can he retreat?  If he is forced to back down, can he pull off an orderly retreat?  And if he does retreat, what sort of left political party or movement will remain when the dust clears?  While talking about re-founding the Republic, he may really be attempting to build as large and dynamic a political movement as possible looking toward the next election.  The question is, will he be able to keep those forces together now and in the coming months and years.

Poles Apart

Fox, with only a few more months in office, has put himself forward as the defender of Mexico’s democratic institutions.  He defends the election of his apparent successor, Felipe Calderón, a former member of his cabinet, as legitimate, and promises to see the final decision of the electoral tribunal upheld.  He has the support of his own National Action Party (PAN) and of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), both of which have pledged to take whatever measures are necessary to preserve the government.

In response to the tribunal’s decision, Andrés Manuel López Obrador has proclaimed that Mexico’s institutions are rotten and must be replaced, calling for a constituent assembly to create a new republic.  AMLO is speaking the language of revolution, calling for a new rival governmental power and for a peaceful revolution, but the question remains whether his own followers and a significant part of the population of Mexico are prepared for the kind of action that would be necessary to bring down the Fox-Calderón government, much less overthrow the state.

The Declaration of Dual Power

Andrés Manuel López Obrador and his Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) have rejected not only the result of what they see as a stolen the election and the decisions of what they regard as a corrupt electoral institute, but they have now also stated that they reject Mexico’s system of political institutions altogether.  Repudiating the recent election as a kind of coup d’état and rejecting the existing Mexican government as a kind of executive committee of the ruling class, López Obrador has issued a “Project,” including a “Plan” (the historic Mexican word used to announce a revolution) that calls for a National Democratic Convention to be held on Sept. 16, Mexican independence day.  The convention would then either create a Coordinating Committee of Peaceful Civil Resistance or to found a new Mexican Republic.  (The entire document can be read in Spanish at <>.)

Speaking on Sept. 1, AMLO told the hundreds of thousands assembled in Mexico’s Plaza de la Constitución or zócalo: “We are going to create our government, now that we don’t accept the false Republic, we are going to establish a Republic that is representative and truly of the people.”  (The entire document can be read in Spanish at <>.)  In the most recent speech on Sept. 3, López Obrador says that the National Democratic Convention will be or become a “constituent assembly” to create a new government.  (This document can be read in Spanish at <>.)

If a National Democratic Convention were to proclaim a new Republic, Mexico would then have two governments, each claiming to rule the country, one headed by Fox and subsequently by Calderón, and the other led by López Obrador.  Such a situation of dual power would not be tenable for long, and would lead either to the fall of the Fox-Calderón government or to the suppression and elimination of the rival government.

A New Republic to Defend the National Patrimony

The political struggle, which may soon become a national contest between two governments, revolves around two different plans for the national economy and two different visions of Mexico: the Fox-Calderón view which favors neoliberalism and the López Obrador program which would maintain elements of a mixed economy and establish what he himself calls a cradle-to-grave social welfare state. Mexico is at the crossroads.

López Obrador argues that it is necessary to create a new and real Mexican Republic in order to defend the national patrimony and to prevent the privatization of the electric power and petroleum industries, as well as the privatization of social security and education.  He calls for a new government that will combat corruption and end the impunity enjoyed by Mexican authorities and police.

Fearing that the Army may be used to disperse the assembly in the Zócalo or to disband the movement, he repeatedly called upon the Army to refuse to obey orders if called upon to attack the peaceful assembly.  Describing the Mexican authorities as “fascist,” he warns his followers not to succumb to provocations that would lead to heavy-handed repression and dictatorship.

He concludes: “We are going to continue to move forward.  Many thanks for the support — because we issued a call for people to turn out and many citizens, many people came today.  What does this mean?  That they have been inserting fear, infusing fear, and the people are here, the people are not afraid.  However, we are not going to fall into the trap of our adversaries by responding to provocation.  We are going to use the three ‘c’s’ [in Spanish] which are necessary in politics: head, heart and character.”

Road to Revolution?  Or a Radical Struggle for Reform?

With his call for a peaceful revolution in the “Project” document released on August 28 and reiterated on Sept. 1, López Obrador is engaging in a risky attempt to either create a permanent hostile opposition that would make government impossible or the proclamation of an alternative government, and thereby the creation of a quasi-revolutionary situation.  Either of these situations would be tenuous and soon lead to more serious confrontations.

The PRD has announced that it intends to take whatever action necessary to prevent Felipe Calderón from being sworn in as president.  In response, the PRI and PAN congressional leaders have announced that they will move to exclude the PRD from the legislature if it continues to disrupt congress and to pursue its goals of an alternative government.  More important, they would take away the party’s registro, its legal existence and ballot line status.  The exclusion of the PRD from the legislature as disloyal to the government would place all power in the hands of the conservative PAN-PRI bloc which could then pursue its neoliberal agenda uninhibited by the PRD’s opposition to privatization of energy, oil, education, and social security health programs.  The elimination of the party’s registro would force it to rebuild itself from the ground up.  Either or both could be devastating to the Mexican left.

The Balance of Forces

An analysis of the balance of forces suggests that while López Obrador’s rhetoric has been revolutionary, support for a peaceful revolutionary movement may be insufficient.

Fox, the PAN, and its ally the PRI, of course, control the Mexican government, its bureaucracy, the Army, and the police and could use them to put down any serious opposition.  Since 1994 the Mexican government has used the Army against the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) and the broader social movement in Chiapas in the South, and throughout the 1990s against drug dealers in the North.  During the last year the Federal government has deployed the new Federal Prevent Police (PFP) against striking workers and community activists in central Mexico.  While López Obrador has called upon the Army to refuse to obey orders to repress Mexican citizens, there is no reason to doubt the loyalty of the Army and the PFP and other police forces to the government.  Mexico has used the military to put down popular movements in 1959, 1968, 1976 and called out the Army in 1994 against the Zapatistas, and there seems no reason that it would not be able to do so again.

Do the Numbers Exist?

López Obrador does not appear to have the sheer numbers of supporters throughout Mexico to challenge the state.  Each of the leading candidates won 16 states: López Obrador and the PRD won in the poorer center and South of Mexico while Felipe Calderón of the PAN won almost all of the more prosperous North.  However, according to the disputed official count, López Obrador captured only 35.3% of the vote, with the Calderón won 35.9 and Roberto Madrazo of the PRI won 22.3%

That is, almost 2/3 of all voters voted for the two more conservative candidates, while only about 1/3 supported a program of reform based on increased social welfare.  Even if López Obrador was cheated out of a million votes as some have alleged, he would still have had only a somewhat large plurality but nothing near a majority of support.  While some people who voted for López Obrador as a reformer might be moved to adopt a position of revolutionary opposition to the state if they felt their votes were stolen, one would suspect that not all PRD supporters would take that position, while very few from other parties would join him.

Perhaps some on the far left would support López Obrador in a battle over democracy, but their numbers are few.  No far left revolutionary party even qualified to appear on the ballot.  Moreover, the explicitly anti-capitalist and anti-electoral “Other Campaign” of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation vehemently opposed López Obrador during the campaign, and is unlikely to support him now.  Mexico’s revolutionary left appears to be smaller and less significant than it was in the 1960s-1980s.

Does the Organization Exist?

Nor does the opposition appear to have the organization, structure and leadership to put together a force powerful enough to challenge the Mexican government at this time.  Except for Mexico City and a few states such as Michoacan, the PRD has been a minority party and a deeply divided and factional party.  Founded in 1989, the PRD has throughout its brief history been an electoral party, a party neither founded upon nor leading a social movement.  While during the campaign the PRD appeared at times to be badly divided, at the moment it seems to be showing remarkable cohesion, with the marked exception of Cuautemoc Cardenas.

During the current struggle, there have been enormous demonstrations, marches, and sit-ins in Mexico City, but so far such demonstrations have been limited to Mexico City.

While the PRD at times came to a working relationship with the National Union of Workers (UNT), it has never been able to give leadership to the working class or even much support to the UNT or any other union, and López Obrador has not had a labor program.  The PRD does have a significant following among working people and the poor of the central and southern states, as its electoral results indicate, but beyond elections this has not been much of an organized following.

True, there are large and significant social struggles taking place today in Mexico, particularly the series of strikes by members of the Miners and Metal Workers Union (SNTMMRM) and the teachers’ strike by Local 22 of the Mexican Teachers Union (SNTE).  However, the PRD has not given leadership to those struggles, nor do those involved in those struggles necessarily support the PRD.  The leadership of Local 22 has said that it will not participate in the National Democratic Convention called by López Obrador (though some of its members might), and it continues to negotiate with Secretary of the Interior Carlos Abascal, suggesting that it looks to this Mexican government to resolve its problems, not to some possible future republic.

Finally, Vicente Fox, Felipe Calderón, and the PAN have the support of the U.S. government which would much prefer to have a conservative government in power, and which certainly does not want social upheaval taking place in its neighbor nation.  Without a doubt Fox has been conferring with the Bush government about the situation, and one would suppose that the Mexican military has been in touch with its American counterpart.  Although it would prefer that Mexico’s elite take the necessary political action to resolve problems, the U.S. will certainly be prepared to use whatever means are necessary to support the Mexican government.

The Balance Might Be Changed

All of that having been said, social movements, especially if they begin to have some success, can grow rapidly, and unfolding events can force them to change their character.  The balance of forces can shift rapidly and radically under the right circumstances.  The power of mass movements has played a significant role in the change of governments in Latin America in the last decade.  So, while López Obrador and the PRD may not yet have sufficient strength, a mistake by the government could suddenly give a lift to the opposition movement.

López Obrador walks a fine line at the moment, attempting to build a powerful enough movement to really challenge the government, to avoid a premature confrontation and the violent repression of his forces, and to gain time and allies in the meantime.  His opponents also walk a fine line, preparing to use force to repress the movement at the right time, but hoping to wear it down and whittle it away before that becomes necessary.  The next two weeks will see both sides attempting to tilt the balances of forces in their favor.

Dan La Botz Dan La Botz teaches history and Latin American studies at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.  He is the author of Rank-and-File Rebellion: Teamsters for a Democratic Union (1990), Mask of Democracy: Labor Suppression in Mexico Today (1992), and Democracy in Mexico: Peasant Rebellion and Political Reform (1995), Made in Indonesia: Indonesian Workers Since Suharto (2001) and the editor of Mexican Labor News & Analysis, a monthly collaboration of the Mexico City-based Authentic Labor Front (FAT), the Pittsburgh-based United Electrical Workers (UE), and the Resource Center of the Americas.  His writing has also appeared in Against the Current, Labor Notes, and Monthly Review among other publications.  This article was first published in Mexican Labor News & Analysis 11.8 (August 2006), republished here with the author’s permission.

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