Mexico: As July Elections Approach, Voters Apathetic, Cynical

What a change from three years ago.  Then Mexico’s left was on the march, from the resistance of the teachers and people in Oaxaca City to the mass demonstrations in Mexico City for Andrés Manuel López Obrador, candidate of the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD).  In 2006, Local 22 of the Mexican Teachers Union (el SNTE) and the Popular Assembly of the Peoples of Oaxaca (APPO) put tens of thousands in the streets in mega-marches in Oaxaca, while López Obrador and the PRD filled the Mexico City zócalo with a million supporters.  At the same time, Subcomandante Marcos and the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN), while rejecting the election and its candidates as utterly corrupt, carried out a national anti-capitalist campaign.  As in 1982, 1988, and 1994, Mexico in 2006 was filled with hope and a desire for change, but hopes were dashed and there was no change.

Today, President Felipe Calderón and National Action Party (PAN) govern Mexico — but perhaps not for very long.  The Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) that ruled Mexico through a one-party state for over 70 years is leading in the election polls with about 37 percent of the vote, the PAN with 33 percent and the PRD with 16.  López Obrador, while he has not left the PRD, is not campaigning for its candidates, but rather for the candidates of two small left parties Convergencia and the Workers Party (PT).  And there is not much time left; the election of the 500 deputies and six governors will take place July 5.

Meanwhile an amorphous opposition operating principally through the Internet is calling upon Mexicans to spoil their ballots or not to vote at all in protest.  That campaign looks to be a winner as pollsters predict a voter turnout of about 30 percent, far less than the 41.7 percent who voted in the 2003 midterm election and less than half those who voted in the 2006 election.  Many 18 to 20 year olds are simply not registering at all, according to one pollster.

War: The Path to Popularity

What has happened to the organization and leadership, the energy and excitement of Mexico’s left in 2006?  Well, first, of course, the left lost.  In a controversial election with many violations and which many believe was stolen, Felipe Calderón became President and Andrés Manuel López Obrador claimed the title of “Legitimate President of the Legitimate Government of Mexico” and began his now three years of touring through Mexico, attacking Calderón as “the usurper” and building his own organization.  Calderón, President and Commander-in-Chief, declared war, always a way to boost popularity, at least for a while.

Calderón’s declared war on the drug cartels and sent 40,000 troops and 5,000 federal police into action against them.  Since then more than 6,000 Mexicans have been killed in the fighting among the cartels and between the cartels and the government, most of them apparently cartel members, though some were soldiers, police, and innocent bystanders.  The military operation has also resulted in human rights abuses including cases of murder, torture, and rape.  Calderón’s drug war, however, has caused his reputation to soar; the Reforma newspaper poll shows him with a 69 percent approval rating, while 25 percent were disappointed (though there are others who report that he is unpopular and even his own PAN party members are disillusioned and may not support him).

The Left?

With Calderón and the right in power, the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), the country’s left-of-center party might have regrouped under the leadership of the enormously popular López Obrador to fight to win a larger role in the legislature.  The PRD, however, spent months in vicious internal struggles between its left- and right-wing factions, with López Obrador supported by the left.  In the end, the right-wing faction won and López Obrador distanced himself from the party, taking with him his Legitimate Government — his shadow cabinet, state, and local organizations — and dedicating his time to support the candidates of two of the PRD’s allied left parties, Convergencia and the PT.  While the faction fight disoriented voters, López Obrador’s apparent abandonment of his party — the party which he claims won the last election with him as its candidate — must be utterly confusing and demoralizing.

Many may in any case have simply decided that the situation looks hopeless.  The Mexican Legislature, both its Senate and House, are pretty equally divided in thirds between the PAN, the PRI, and the PRD, with the PAN having a few more senators and representatives than the others.  The problem is that the PRI and PAN, with over two-thirds of the votes, often ally on the most important political issues.  The PRD would have to more than double its current number of legislators in order to be able to stop the more conservative parties.

The failure of the PRD, manifest in not only the corruption but also the fraud within the party’s own elections, represents a historic defeat for Mexico.  The PRD, when it was founded, promised a break with the corruption and fraud of the past — it was to be a new party founded on democracy, transparency, and integrity.  A new day was coming, symbolized by the Aztec Sun, the party’s symbol.  Now the PRD seems to many to have gone the way of the old Institutional Revolutionary Party from which it sprang: a party interested only in power.

Crisis upon Crisis

Many people, of course, are not so political, not so driven by parties and candidates.  Living their lives, going on from day to day, they vote for some party or candidate in the hope that things might get better.  Sometimes they get caught up in the excitement of a fresh alternative; more typically, they vote with a sense of resignation, knowing that their vote will probably mean little.  At a time, like now, when the country seems to be facing insoluble problems, they may wonder why they should vote at all.

Many people may simply feel beaten down by Mexico’s many crises.  First, of course, was the crisis of legitimacy of Calderón election.  About a third to half of the electorate — those who voted for López Obrador and some more — don’t believe that he should be president.  Second, there is the crisis of the drug wars and the accompanying militarization.  While many Mexicans support Calderón and the drug war, there is also a deep fear about what is happening to the country.  It is the fear that Mexico might become Colombia.

Then there is the world economic crisis which has hit Mexico hard.  Mexico’s official unemployment rate is now at 5.25 percent, extremely high by the country’s standards.  That rate hardly reflects the actual numbers of unemployed and underemployed in the country, to say nothing about the ten percent of the population who left to look for jobs in the United States.  Next came the swine flu (later renamed H1N1), attributed to a pig factory farm in Mexico, and with it a wave of panic.  In Mexico there were 7,000 laboratory-verified cases of the flu and over 100 dead so far, many of them children.  Then came the fire at the ABC daycare center in Hermosillo, Mexico, which took the lives of 45 preschool children.

Mexico at the moment does not encourage a lot of optimism.  Symbolic of the nation in depression was the explosion and fire which killed one man and injured eight other people when a van that was carrying fireworks, supposedly to be displayed during the third anniversary of the Oaxaca civic uprising of 2006, blew up.  Press reports implied that the rockets might have been intended as weapons against the police and said the van was also carrying gasoline to make Molotov cocktails.  The teachers union and APPO suggested the explosion might have been the result of an attack, presumably by the police or death squads who killed 20 in 2006.  Whatever caused that explosion, the movements of 2006 have been blown way, gone up in smoke, and we are left with the smoke and dust, the dead and wounded.  For Mexico’s left it is time to take stock.

Dan La Botz is a Cincinnati-based teacher, writer and activist.  Contact him through his home page: <>.