December 22, 2006


Mexico’s Short Summer of Liberal Democracy

By Víctor M. Quintana S.

The best assessment of Mexico’s recent presidential election is the ruling handed down by the Federal Election Tribunal (TEPJF) on the challenges submitted by the Coalition for the Good of All (Coalición por el bien de Todos). The tribunal found that there had been improper meddling by the president of the republic; an illegal fear-mongering campaign orchestrated against López Obrador by business and some civil organizations; and a smear campaign waged by the national television networks. While acknowledging that all of these irregularities occurred, the tribunal, astonishingly, did not consider them grounds to annul the election. The tribunal’s decision is at the center of the country’s current political crisis and democratic regression.

A Setback for Alternating

This is the best way to describe the current political situation in Mexico. At both the federal and state level, it is very clear that the process of transition to an alternating-party system of power, which began with the state governorships in 1989 and continued with the presidential election in 2000, has hit an impasse.

The country’s institutions were not up to the task. The entire regulatory and institutional framework, forged by Mexican society and political parties as a basic instrument of the transition to democracy, cracked in this year’s presidential election. Neither the Federal Electoral Institute (IFE) nor the TEPJF were up to the challenge posed by a hard-fought contest marked by the legal or paralegal intervention of extremely powerful economic interests and the de facto powers that rule this country.

The IFE’s ineptitude, especially in tallying the votes but also beforehand, in its extreme pusillanimity and its powerlessness to halt the dirty war against López Obrador, raises many questions about its capacity to fulfill its duties. Moreover, the tribunal’s ruling that irregularities did occur but “were not sufficient to affect the outcome of the election,” leaves no doubt about the bias of those who control that institution.

And not only in federal elections has alternation come to a standstill. In Tabasco’s Oct. 15 elections for governor, state deputies, and mayors, all the corrupt practices and dirty tricks that PRI (the former dominating party) governments have always resorted to once again reared their head, including vote buying, busing in supporters to campaign rallies, and threatening activists and leaders of the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD). Tabasco confirmed that the country’s governors have become caciques, or bosses, controlling electoral and other processes in their states. One cacique is Oaxaca governor Ulises Ruiz, who has obstinately remained in power despite nearly five months of a massive popular insurrection demanding his resignation.

With the de facto powers intact, the capitulation of electoral agencies, and governors running their states like fiefdoms, we are led to the conclusion that political transition in Mexico has come to a standstill, is bogged down, and there appears to be no way to pull it out of the quagmire.

The Vigorous Movements from Below

Amid the signs of a democratic regression, the energy of the people at the bottom, the underdogs, has made itself felt. In the spring of 2005, the government attempted to strip López Obrador of his immunity from prosecution to prevent him from running for president. In response, a broad social movement emerged supporting him. This movement evolved and grew stronger when López Obrador won that battle and launched his presidential campaign. It thus became a new expression in civil resistance against electoral fraud and the imposition of the candidate of the National Action Party (PAN).

A very significant moment in the evolution of this movement, the most important in Mexico in recent decades, was the National Democratic Convention (CND) held on Sept. 16. Now named the Broad Progressive Front (FAP), the movement is vigorous, creative, and much more broad-based than the parties that made up the Coalition for the Good of All. Although it has a nationwide presence, its influence radiates out from the Federal District, specifically the via sacra of Mexican politics: the corridor from the city’s main square, or Zócalo, to Avenida de la Reforma, which was occupied for 45 days by the CND’s rank and file. The encampments set up along the corridor were a hotbed of political, social, and cultural activity, festivities, and rebellion.

But the civil resistance against electoral fraud has hardly been the last expression of bottom-up democracy. Since June, the Popular Assembly of the Peoples of Oaxaca (APPO), an umbrella group representing teachers and social, popular, indigenous, and campesino organizations in that rural state, has practically held the state capital under siege. APPO’s main demand is the resignation of the governor, Ulises Ruiz, who also came to power through electoral fraud.

Expressions such as this have been seen in several parts of the country, including the uprising of comuneros (rural land holders) in Atenco, the protests by relatives of miners killed in Pasta de Conchos, and the striking workers at the Siderúrgica Lázaro Cárdenas steel plant. Movements that not only express and symbolize the disgust from the depths of society but that have also been instrumental in seeking actions to defend the Earth, community, and union rights.

A Country that is Breaking Apart

All these processes are taking place in an increasingly fragmented country. This social fragmentation is on display in various forms in the country’s different regions. There is a great bipolar divide: on the one hand, the Mexico of the integrated, as sociologist Sergio Zermeño calls them—those who have bet on successful globalization, who believe that the key to solving the country’s problems is taking the free-market and free-trade model to its extreme conclusion. Most Mexicans who are banking on this model voted for Felipe Calderón and, to a lesser extent, Roberto Madrazo of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI); although they mainly live in the north and the west, many also belong to the urban middle and upper classes elsewhere in the country.

At the other extreme are those who believe that Mexico urgently needs a transformation to bring about greater equity and end the structural poverty preventing the nation’s integration and development, which is a cause of the ongoing violence. These are the lower class and working sectors, both urban and rural, above all in the center and south of the country. But they are not only there, since growing numbers of Mexicans in the north and west, and also an important segment of the enlightened middle class, belong to this group. This is the Mexico that supported López Obrador’s Alternative Nation Project.

Mexico’s Short Summer of Liberal Democracy

Electoral democracy appears to be undermining, rather than consolidating, certainty, stability, and governability in Mexico. Far from serving as an instrument to solve the country’s problems it has become a problem in its own right. Why?

Because the postelectoral political crisis is more than that, more than the manifestation of a merely electoral problem; it is the venting of very deep social discontent produced by 24 years of structural adjustment policies.

In Mexico there is no social platform for liberal democracy to function properly. The social fabric has been so torn, society has become so fragmented, and that an all-out effort to heal the wounds is needed for institutions to work reasonably well.

When a candidacy such as López Obrador’s arises, liberal democracy becomes overburdened with expectations, with demands from below.

Translated from: El Corto Verano De La Democracia Liberal,by Alan Hynds

Víctor M. Quintana S. is a colaborator with the Americas Program, International Relations Center ( He is an adviser to the Frente Democrático Campesino in Chihuahua and researcher at the Autonomous University of Ciudad Juárez.

Letters to the Editor Return to the Frontpage