Mexico’s Elections: Lost in a Labyrinth

Salinas votes
Former Mexican President Carlos Salinas speaks to reporters after casting his ballot in Mexico’s July 6, 2003, midterm legislative elections. Salinas’ Institutional Revolutionary Party won a majority of seats in the National Congress (Photo: Jorge Uzon/AFP-Getty Images).

Mexican President Vicente Fox’s National Action Party (PAN) lost 49 congressional seats in midterm elections on July 6. Early results, released just after voting concluded, projected gains for the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which ruled Mexico for 71 years before being defeated by Fox in 2000. Wire reports, citing anonymous federal electoral officials, on July 13 reported that the PRI won 224 of the 500 seats in the lower legislative assembly, up from the 207 it occupied going into the election. The left-wing Democratic Revolution Party also posted big gains, nearly doubling the seats it holds to 95. In this article for Mexico City’s Reforma, Sergio Aguayo Quezada, a human-rights activist and university professor who lost his bid for the National Congress running on the México Posible ticket, offers his view of what went wrong for the PAN. —WPR

It only took three years for the country’s president and his political party to shed the leaves of the laurel victory crown. It’s clear, in fact, that if what voters had in mind was to punish them, it was because of the lukewarm way in which [Fox and the PAN] conducted themselves, and the confusion they exhibited, when it came time to transform the nation’s democratic structures. Once again it has been demonstrated that history is cruel to those who flirt with it and then later turn their backs on it.

With the results from the elections last Sunday, Fox is obliged to reach some sort of understanding with the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). Three years ago [when he was elected president], Fox and the PAN had the ball in their court, and the capacity to set the pace. Now it’s totally different, because they will have to march to the beat that [senior PRI leaders] Roberto Madrazo and Elba Esther Gordillo will set for them. And I would venture to predict that these veteran politicians will not take into consideration what’s good for Fox or for the country. Their actions will have the primary and exclusive objective of clearing the way for the triumphal march to Los Pinos [the seat of the Mexican presidency] in 2006. While it’s impossible (and imprudent) to take a future PRI victory for granted, we cannot discard the possibility as we did three years ago [when the PRI lost the presidential elections for the first time in 71 years]. What is tragic about the situation is that it was Fox himself who, in the midst of applause and complacency from his PAN party, created the tri-color shackles [the PRI’s emblem is red, white, and green] that are now limiting his possibilities for maneuvering.

Fox chiseled his political identity using the PRI as a foil. Who can forget the scene after the monumental fraud of 1988 [many in Mexico do not believe Carlos Salinas legitimately won the 1988 presidential elections] when then-legislator Fox offended Salinas by hanging ballots found dumped in empty lots and trash-disposal sites on his ears? Fox built his triumph at the polls on the basis of three organizational pillars: the PAN party structure; the mobilization and enthusiasm of his millions of friends [a group called Friends of Fox was created to support his campaign]; and the “pragmatic” vote he coaxed away from the left [Fox convinced some supporters of the left-leaning PRD party that a vote for him would be more productive, since he was the only candidate capable of beating the PRI]…not to mention, of course, the financial backing he received from big business.

Yet in only three years, Fox and his party created the conditions for the triumphal return of Salinas [who has lived outside Mexico for most of the time since he left the presidency] just before the PRI victory. How could this have happened?

A small debate has quietly begun on the question of whether Fox or the PAN party was more responsible for the catastrophe last Sunday [July 6]. But this is a useless discussion, since both contributed, wittingly and unwittingly. They thought breaking with the one-party system was enough for the transition to be complete, without realizing that the most important stage was still to come—they needed to dismantle the authoritarian regime and then build a democratic tradition in its place. It wasn’t a matter of annihilating the PRI as some believed. This would have been impossible and unfair since, after all, there are many currents within that political party. They needed to weaken the faction of the PRI that represented (and still does) the worst of the party’s authoritarian impulses, including the human-rights violators, the less-than-successful mapaches [raccoons, or those responsible for “fixing” elections], and the compulsively corrupt. PAN leaders lost their nerve. Out of a curious blend of generosity, ingenuousness, and vested interests, they concluded that the voters were mistaken and that the country really needed to reach an agreement—any type of agreement—with the PRI. Their actions were based on their conviction that this was the best way to guarantee the country’s future stability—or at least that’s what they say.

Once the decision to reach some type of understanding was made, the first step was to knock down two of the electoral pillars. The Friends of Fox were left hanging, and they languished in inaction. The PAN party machine had a part in this decision, since it was terrified of being displaced by the Friends of Fox’s broad membership. Also, Fox and the PAN party broke the agreement they made with the left when they asked for the “utilitarian” vote (the promise to create a Truth Commission to investigate abuses under the PRI was forgotten, for example). Both were pushed to the side, because PAN leaders arrogantly thought that what they could offer was more than enough. With no one exerting pressure from within, PAN forgot about promoting structural democratic reforms. There was no serious electoral reform. No corrections were made to the framework within which television and radio operate [for years, the PRI and the Televisa group worked symbiotically to maintain a political and media monopoly]. On the contrary, enormous concessions were made in this area. The only significant reform was the creation of the Law on Transparency and Access to Information.

What is truly worrisome about these elections is how well the political parties that received enough votes to stay in the game incorporated the PRI’s tricks. Campaigns used frivolous language and gave gifts to voters. The July 6 elections were a contest among electoral machines that set out to mobilize the “hard vote” [voters who consistently vote for one party]. And the political party with the most experience in these matters did best.

It has never been precisely established when the democratic transition began in Mexico. I have some reason to believe the starting point was the Doctor’s Movement [demanding independent unions and better working conditions] that began in November 1964 and ended a year later. If we accept that date as accurate, then next year we will celebrate the 40th anniversary of the beginning of the transition—the slowest such transition the world has seen in the past half-century. On this score, Mexico is unbeatable, and its sluggishness has had some obvious costs. When one thinks about who is responsible for the blocked transition, it is impossible to ignore Fox and his party. Neither found a way out of the labyrinth of confusion. The result is impossible to ignore: the pace of change is back in the hands of the PRI, with its bad habits. What a shame, Mr. President.