Behind Mexico’s Post-Electoral Crisis

By Jamie Gonzalez / September 2006 issue of Socialist Action

MEXICO CITY–Huge rallies and demonstrations demanding a total recount, ballot box by ballot box, have been held in Mexico City since the conservative Felipe Calderón was announced as having an advantage of around 300,000 votes at the July 2 presidential elections.

One of the demonstrations was estimated by Mexico City police as larger than one-million, and another with around two million participants. Even though federal government sources have downgraded these estimates, it is clear that these powerful mobilizations are the largest in the country’s history. As of the writing of this article, thousands of protesters are still camping in a huge sit-down in one of Mexico City’s main arteries, Paseo de la Reforma.

The obvious reason for these protests is that the followers of Calderón’s main opponent, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, perceive that a huge electoral fraud has taken place. A partial recount ordered by Mexico’s federal electoral court has clearly shown there is ample reason to believe this.

According to the pro-Obrador daily La Jornada, of the first 3074 packages (including the ballot boxes and accompanying documentation) that were recounted, there are 34,890 more votes than the total of participating registered voters; 80,392 ballots are missing; in 80 percent of the cases, there were arithmetical errors.

In several cases (as happened in districts 12 and 15 in Mexico City) the electoral packages were found with their seals broken, and, even worse, in a district in the northern state of Chihuahua the seals of the storehouse where the packages were kept were found broken, and all packages had been opened.

The first person interested in a recount should have been Felipe Calderón, even if his party, the Partido Acción Nacional (PAN), contests La Jornada’s figures: in the mind of any reasonable person, even discounting a systematic fraud operation, simple arithmetical mistakes could account for as thin an advantage as his. Calderón, however, has been deaf to the huge protests that are actively questioning his ascent to the presidency.

Mexico’s president, Vicente Fox, has gone as far as declaring Calderón the “clear winner,” and committing the very usual (but perilous) political blunder of minimizing the size and depth of the conflict. In his messages, Fox considers the protest as purely a “Mexico City problem.” In the words of satirical newspaper articles, everything is going OK in the country known as Foxiland.

The electoral conflict, as serious as it has been escalated, is only the surface of much deeper problems. Why would three pro-capitalist bourgeois parties (the PRI, the PAN and the PRD, each of whom, with their allies, hold around one third of the seats in the Mexican Congress) fight so bitterly among themselves for the presidency? A cynic would answer that this is just another power contest among ambitious gangs that are capable of tearing each-other’s eyes out for a piece of the budget cake. But that is not the whole story.

Save a couple of years where the economy has grown above four percent, for much of the last 12 years (the last two presidencies, that is) Mexico has either been in the midst of a horrendous financial crisis that brought the country to its knees (in 1994-1995), or has seen very weak growth. In the much-touted globalized economy, the Mexican capitalists and the governments serving as their executive political bodies have simply not been able to keep up with international competition.

Their favorite formula for keeping their companies alive has been a perfunctory pretense of attaining world-recognized quality certifications, without understanding or wanting to assume the real meaning or the real costs of what their first-world senior partners mean by those standards, while keeping their employees under unsafe conditions, long working hours, and low wages.

The tragedy of the 65 coal miners who were victims of an explosion at Pasta de Conchos, in the northern state of Coahuila, underlines what has been just stated: coal prices have doubled during the last years, so mine operators put their personnel to greater and greater risk, no matter the human cost. The main ventilator at the mine was not working, and even though federal authorities knew of it they did nothing, and permitted the company to operate the mine with just the secondary ventilator.

Similar situations are happening in all sorts of environments. I will never forget the answer that was given by a very large company to a small firm I was collaborating with about two years ago: “We have decided not to buy the system [a computer package that would help them manage their inter-border customs operations], because the way we do things here is to keep whatever personnel is necessary until 11 o’clock in the evening (or later) in order to administer these operations.” He was talking of the personnel that came in at 9 in the morning, of course.

Entire regions of the country are controlled by the narco gangs, which enjoy protection from allied forces inside the government. Last year, more than 1500 narco-related violent deaths were reported. In July of this year, the 1000 mark was reached.

The list of alarming facts and figures goes on and on: the Fox administration holds the national record for the number of news reporters and analysts murdered or disappeared (25, in total); the quality of primary and junior high-school education has considerably decreased, with Mexican pupils holding consistently next-to-last places in studies undertaken by the UN body in charge of education and culture (UNESCO) as well as by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (the OECD, a rich-countries club to which Mexico is grotesquely affiliated).

Very high unemployment and very few opportunities help Mexican capitalists get away with it all. Small wonder that more than half a million Mexicans are crossing the U.S. border each year, even at the risk of their own lives by walking through the Arizona desert, in order to get whatever employment they can obtain del otro lado (“on the other side”).

Small wonder that so many workers feel so vulnerable or discontented! Small wonder that so many large companies publicly rallied behind Calderón in order to combat López Obrador’s “populism,” since they sensed that people might get out-of-hand! Small wonder why Fox and Calderon’s political team have staked everything on keeping a firm lid over the boiling-pot!

It will come as a surprise to many, however, that López Obrador favors the same super-exploitation conditions as his opponents, and is no friend of unionization (not to mention workers’ power), whatsoever. As head of the government of the Federal District (a very powerful political position in Mexico, due to Mexico City’s great concentration of wealth and population), he not only clashed repeatedly with the city workers union but favored all sorts of anti-labor schemes for workers laboring in new projects.

A case in point is his most famous social program, the monthly (about US $70) pensions to the elderly, where program workers are not contracted as such, but hired as recipients of “scholarships.” The young women who diligently carry out the program for the elderly have no rights whatsoever; they can be fired without justification, and have to put up with whatever hours or tasks Obrador’s unconditionals come up with (even delivering license-plates and keeping people in line during a celebrity’s visit). That’s a new trick that many a greedy employer would like to imitate!

The reasons why the conservative capitalists in Mexico have tried many times to stop López Obrador are simply their social prejudices (they see his followers as the “populace”), their cronyism (the main source of multi-millionaires in Mexico are government contracts and, or course, the narco trade)—and, yes, U.S. pressure to keep out of office someone who Washington does not trust as an ally.

To give López Obrador due credit, however, there are also legitimate reasons for some capitalists to hate him, since he opposed the greatest robbery (officially sanctioned, or otherwise) in the country’s history: the “rescue” of the banking system, which the PRI’s Zedillo administration undertook in alliance with the PAN as a result of the 1994-1995 crisis.

On the international scene, Evo Morale’s reforms in Bolivia and (most importantly) his alliances with Fidel Castro in Cuba and Chávez in Venezuela have lit up all sorts of warning signs in U.S. government offices. Washington is wary of any new “populist” government in Latin America.

But the problem with the U.S. and Mexican ruling classes’ shortsightedness is that they originally did not have an enemy in López Obrador (he has even invited the U.S. ambassador in Mexico to public-works inauguration ceremonies), but are trying very, very hard to make him one.

The results of an incompetent handling of a political crises are visible in Oaxaca City, where the state government tried to suppress the noisy (but peaceful) occupation of the city center by thousands of teachers who were demanding a reclassification of their wage levels (essentially, a wage rise). The state police were badly beaten in the streets, the conflict got fierce, and the government has lost all control of whole areas in the city and in several municipalities.

The teachers, now joined by thousands of city poor and campesinos, have even taken control of the state TV and several radio stations. A political analyst in the daily La Jornada even spoke of a “Oaxaca Commune,” which is exaggerated (because the Oaxaca communards do not command the city government, institutions, and main means of production—as did their celebrated antecessors in Paris in 1871); but, in any case, the adjective is not way off the mark.

President Fox has pledged that he will be “firm, but prudent.” You can bet that he will be neither. The now battle-hardened Popular Assembly participants in Oaxaca, as well as the peaceful campers in Mexico City’s Reforma boulevard, had better be ready for much more serious activity in the very near future.