Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Regarding COHA’s June 6 Press Release “Flirting with Danger: Mexican Presidential Campaign Grows Tense”

  • 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.

Full article...

COHA has received a number of comments regarding its June 6 report, “Flirting with Danger: Mexican Presidential Campaign Grows Tense.” These have ranged from high praise to harsh criticism. A frequent comment was that Michael Lettieri’s evaluation of President Fox was overly critical. Below, COHA reprints one such letter (slightly edited) and offers the author’s response to several themes which appeared frequently in readers’ comments.

~Dear Sirs,

Living in Mexico I feel that the recent letter prepared by Michael Lettieri simply expresses a perception that is distorted.
If Fox did nothing else other than defeat the PRI, that was enough.

He faced a congress controlled by PRD and PRI, if PRD cared for the country as much as their own power they could have joined with PAN in helping the forward movement of Mexico viz when Fox attempted to appoint an experienced group of executives as a board to bring Pemex into the 21st century, he was shot down.

In the U.S. I have never seen a presidential election when the incumbent party did not push the candidate representing their party. If Blair appears to support Bush, as Thatcher supported Reagan, it is no big deal. That the former Spanish Prime Minister intervened in Mexico’s presidential race on behalf of his ideological compatriot, will not affect the race.
The article makes it appear that Mexico is on the brink of disaster; this is simply wrong. The gentleman from COHA is expressing a narrow view which is dependent on sophistry.

Arthur J. Kreizel~

~COHA Responds:

Many readers shared Mr. Kreizel’s belief that COHA’s rather rough treatment of President Fox was unwarranted, yet I do not feel this is the case. While I share the belief that Fox deserves plaudits for his work in defeating the PRI both prior to his 2000 campaign and during it, to suggest that simply ending the one-party system was sufficient reeks of defeatist fatalism. Frankly, to claim that defeating the PRI was “enough,” sanctions failure and lack of vision, and provides an excessively gracious six year free-pass.

Mexican democracy is still in a nascent phase, and has hardly been fully consolidated on all levels. Important changes in subnational practices, institutional structure, civic culture and social participation still remain unconsummated. Moreover, contemporary politicians are less than six years removed from an authoritarian system, and are struggling to accept the values of democracy. It was this inexperience – a flaw which all were guilty of – that helped stymie Fox’s early attempts at reform. And as much as the opposition parties are deserving of criticism in this failure, neither can Fox be completely exonerated.

While Fox was not entirely inactive, as the countless signs shamelessly proclaiming “El gobierno de cambio cumple” (“the government of change delivers”) next to bridges and highways attest, I feel that there are two areas where he has fallen short. First, while Mexico’s macroeconomic indicators are better than ever, the country remains highly unequal and growth has not been inclusive enough, a fact evidenced by the unremitting stream of northward migration to the United States. Second, and I believe perhaps more importantly, Fox has done little to help the country advance a democratic culture. A 2006 survey by Mexico City daily El Universal found that only 50 percent of respondents felt that Fox had aided the development of democracy in Mexico, and his behavior in the current campaign has underscored that sad reality.
As previously noted, Mexican democracy is exceedingly youthful, and that is precisely why Fox’s interjections into the campaign are so problematic. To compare the Mexican political system to that of the U.S. or U.K. overlooks that fact. For one, such actions have only had a negative influence on Mexico’s political tone. Secondly, quite frankly they were in violation of campaign laws. To suggest that Aznar’s visit was “no big deal” is to excuse the PAN’s breach of regulations – the event may have been insignificant because it had no impact on the electorate, but it was hardly legal. The establishment of the IFE was one of the great legacies of Mexico’s democratic transition, and that body has come to play an important role as a referee on an admittedly rough and tumble playing field. For Fox and the PAN, who as much as anyone have benefited from the IFE’s contributions to democratization, to systematically trample the organization’s strictures – both in letter and in spirit – is a display of rank hypocrisy at best.
Because of this cutthroat approach to Mexico’s electoral campaign, at the time of the COHA article’s publication, it appeared as though conditions existed which would have made a post-election conflict likely. I shared this feeling with many others, including distinguished Mexican historian Enrique Krauze, who also expressed concern that a dispute could arise, although the degree to which we feared disintegration perhaps differed. At any rate, I was hardly suggesting that a revolution was looming, though I did fear an acrimonious post-ballot conflict. Since then, the climate has cooled somewhat with the June 13 signing of a civility pact between all of the major parties participating in the election, a move which represents a significant and important step towards ensuring governability after July 2. I do not think chaos is inevitable, but I feel there is reason to believe that a minor crisis could emerge.

Even if the election and its aftermath proceed smoothly, however, Mexico may not be clear of danger. A “disaster,” as Mr. Kreizel puts it, can take many forms, and more worrisome than a July 3 conflict would be the lingering effect on Mexican democracy of a tainted electoral process and ensuing political gridlock. Already, many Mexicans are disenchanted with the nature of their democracy, feeling that it fails to adequately address problems or offer meaningful representation. According to a 2004 study, 54 percent of Fox supporters in 2000 were dissatisfied with democracy, and the El Universal poll put dissatisfaction with democracy overall at 55 percent.

While Mexicans are sanguine about their country’s political prospects (47 percent of those surveyed by El Universal predicted a better situation next year), this optimism could be fleeting. A Calderón presidency stonewalled by the PRD, or a López Obrador government receiving the same treatment from the PAN, would dash those hopes and exaggerate feelings of disenchantment. In this sense, the winner on July 2 is far less important than the manner in which that triumph is attained. Whichever candidate emerges victorious will have to reconcile the country’s divisions and move forward with an agenda that benefits all Mexicans. The bitterness sown during the campaign, with both Calderón and López Obrador employing – to varying degrees – polarizing language, will only complicate the prospects for progress, which all agree would be an undeniably “disastrous” outcome for the nation.

Michael Lettieri ~

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