Sunday, May 13, 2012

Obsessed about Twitter

After the rather mediocre presidential debate, life in Mexico has plunged into one of those moments when one can see how immature Mexican democracy is.

The debate, unlike what happens in other democratic societies, displayed at once, the stiffness and shallowness of our public life. Stiffness, because the underlying problems were left untouched, since each candidate had less than 30 minutes and there was no real exchanges among the participants. 

Shallow, because on top of wasting, four-million Mexican pesos (more than 300, 000 USD), the presence of Playboy playmate Julia Orayén, the usher of the debate, gave a glimpse of how the top bureaucrats at IFE, the country’s top election authority, perceive themselves as entitled to such perks.

IFE, far from acknowledging the seriousness of its task, insists on acting as if it the Mexican democracy was robust and solid. But not only IFE. The main parties also show stiffness and shallowness.

The best place to watch how stiff and superficial political life is in Mexico is the social media, a much distorted mirror of what happens in Mexico. Before a detailed analysis the Mexican social media and the stiff and shallow approach of the parties, it is important to note that, according to the information available in the AMIPCI 2011 survey, only 29 percent of the Mexican households have at least one computer.

About 21 percent of the Mexican households have Internet access, providing access to just over 31 million people. Internet users tend to be mostly males, living in cities of more than 100 thousand people. They are very young, a good number underage. Many of them are members of families with medium to high income and a good number of them live in Mexico City or the State of Mexico. These numbers depict the proverbial Internet/technology gap between Mexico City’s metro area and the rest of the country (see page 7).

Another important fact is that the interest in politics among users of social media is markedly higher (16 percent), actually the double, as compared with people not participating in social media.

That is why it is more surprising that the three main political parties are spending so much time, money and energy in trying to dominate, to “colonize”, the Internet, the social media and, more specifically, Twitter.

This week provided a good chance to see how futile these efforts to “colonize” the Internet are since, right after the debate, someone published a video of one of the so-called “Twitter farms” in Mexico. One can listen in this video a soft-spoken boss instructing others about fighting a couple of Twitter hash-tags criticizing, Enrique Peña Nieto, candidate of the Revolutionary Institutional Party, the PRI.

The video is just over a minute-long, and is almost impossible to understand what is actually happening in the room. One cannot tell whether the people in the room are volunteers, as PRI officials said or if, as many assume, they are workers or “cyber-hauled” (ciberacarreados) operating accounts in social media to win the so-called Trending Topics.

What is clear to the educated user in Twitter in Mexico is that PRI tries very hard to give the impression of a unanimous support to their candidate, pretty much the way it used to be back in the 1960s or the 1970s. The video confirms the suspicions many have expressed had about the PRI’s social media strategy, as there are way too may accounts supporting Peña Nieto which only post information or ideas favorable to Peña Nieto.

These accounts lack pictures or use photographs of professional models taken from other websites, so they are easily spotted as not related to real users. Moreover, there is a deep chasm between the profile of those who could vote for Enrique Peña and the profile of Mexican Internet users and, more specifically, of social media users in Mexico.

This gap combined with the false sense of unanimous support to Peña Nieto in Twitter reveals the PRI’s intention to manipulate, to lie, about their ability to communicate. PRI communication in social media lacks meaning. It, merely repeats slogans and ideas in a way leading many to wonder what else is the PRI willing to create this false sense of unanimous support. Social media users rightly feel cheated and, given their academic achievement, income, and political preferences, they do not hesitate to worry about the risk of allowing the PRI to act like that.

On top, one needs to add the growing tensions between the old and the new media just emerging in Mexico. Conflicts between old and new media are not new, but they are more severe in Mexico because the old media is much more dependent on public resources transferred to them by the municipal, state, and federal levels of government. See also the paper published by the NGO Article 19.

It is a very unfavorable situation, aggravated by the way in which press offices allocate their budgets, and by the brutal concentration of income making very difficult for small and medium-size businesses to invest resources in advertising. This is not just a matter of perceptions. As I said two weeks ago, there are on-going projects to analyze what happens in social media in Mexico.

One of such projects is Monitoreo Electoral en México (Monitoring Elections in Mexico), which shows that both the PRI and PAN presence in Mexican social media does not reflect the activity of real, flesh and blood, users but rather the operation of social media farms like the one in the video I referred previously.

The rather shallow and conceited attitude of the Mexican political parties has come to generate “Trending Topics wars” that have been solved following three logics. PRI has resorted to using so-called BOTS, which are programs generating fake users and to using so-called “social media farms”, and a very active presence in social media of some of its regional leaders.

The ruling party, PAN, also uses BOTS. It has displayed some level of coordination of its grass-roots membership, with some presence of key congresspersons and top-cabinet officials. However, Ms. Josefina Vázquez-Mota’s BOTS strategy, an attempt to match Peña Nieto’s follower numbers in Twitter, ended up in a major gaffe.

The weakness of Ms Vázquez-Mota social media strategy is only one of the PAN candidate’s problems. She had the worst “post-debate” performance of the four presidential candidates, which included his appearance in “Third Degree”, the news commentary and analysis show of Televisa, the media monopoly in Mexico.

During the interview, Ms Vázquez-Mota not only refused to distance herself from Felipe Calderon’s administration. She even regretted the fact that Mexican law prevents the acting president from attending campaign rallies and events. Ms Vázquez-Mota decided to become the heir of the Calderón administration legacy, despite the fact that she has been unable to match Peña Nieto and despite the fact she is now trailing Mr Andrés Manuel López Obrador in the Milenio daily poll.

Her situation is so difficult now, that voices talking about replacing her as candidate have multiplied. The problem here is, Who could become the PAN new candidate? If Ernesto Cordero decides to step in he will have to fight the ghost of his unfortunate statements about how some families survive on six thousand pesos (450 USD) a month salary. Who else then? Could Margarita Zavala, the Mexican First Lady, step in? Would Diego Fernandez de Ceballos come back from his retirement?

What many panistas are unwilling to acknowledge is that the problem is not Ms Vázquez-Mota, but the heavy, unsustainable burden of 60 000 dead from the futile war on drugs and, above all, the dismal performance of the economy. Mexican economy has been unable to create formal, well-paid, jobs. As the National Statistics Office, INEGI, acknowledged, during the last twelve months, 763 000 persons joined the informal, so-called, “black” economy. With those numbers, there is no way for any ruling party to win.

PAN should acknowledge that Josefina is not a miracle worker. Moreover, Josefina would have to acknowledge the risks involved in being the heir of the current government’s legacy.

However, not only PAN and PRI make mistakes, the left too. Although no there are no documented cases of BOTS or “social media farms”, Mr. Lopez Obrador is, as I said two weeks ago, the “king of Twitter” in Mexico. And indeed, the left, specifically the left in Mexico City dominate at its pleasure the Mexican social media. There is no real need to inflate the Twitter Trendinr Topics with hash tags pushed in social media “farms”, because the left has a “natural” majority of users identified with Mr. Lopez Obrador and Mr Miguel Mancera, the left mayoral candidate in Mexico City.

However, something that left the City has failed to understand since last year, when Eruviel Avila swept the gubernatorial race in Mr. Peña Nieto home State of Mexico, is that the reality in Mexico City is vastly different from the rest of the country, including that of State of Mexico municipalities within the Mexico City metro area. That is why leftist social media users discredit almost all polls. They do not understand, as an example, why there might be people who want to cast a vote for the PRI.

The main problem for the Mexican left in Twitter is the fact that their dominance turns into insults, verbal aggression, and even bullying of whoever breaks rank with what the left perceives as politically correct. This was evident in the reactions to the unfortunate episode that starred Enrique Peña Nieto and a group of people at Mexico City’s Universidad Iberoamericana campus.

The protest was not spontaneous. Far from it, it was prepared as a series of activities to express rejection to the PRI presidential candidate. However, rather than arguing with Peña and his ideas, a dynamic of insults and verbal aggressions broke out in the Iberoamericana campus.

As this was unfolding in the Jesuit University in Mexico City, in Twitter, PAN supporters allied themselves with the left to insult the PRI presidential candidate, despite the fact that Felipe Calderon has been repeatedly the target of insults from the left. It is hard to know what will happen from now on. I have, however, some questions. what is the limit, if there is any limit at all, of the harassment strategy in Twitter? Is the left aware of the fact that there is a deep disconnection between the “Republic of Love” proclaimed by Mr. López Obrador and the active and systematic harassment in Twitter?

As far as PRI is concerned, would it be too hard to acknowledge that Twitter is not PRI territory and to stop using social media farms and BOTS to generate the false impression of an overwhelming majority supporting Peña Nieto? Does PRI realize how harmful is their leader’s obsession with unanimous support for their candidates? Will they ever acknowledge how this behavior comes out as harassment?

Does PAN will ever acknowledge that they have been ruling for almost twelve years Mexico? Will they ever acknowledge how unable they have been to do what people expected from them? Will they keep blaming PRI for their misadventures? Will they ever learn to admit their own mistakes? Will they take advantage of the remaining seven of weeks before Election Day?

Will the left acknowledge that Twitter is not Mexico? Will they acknowledge that rather than insisting on showing how much they hate Enrique Peña or Felipe Calderon they should be concerned, for example, with having enough representatives for little more than 120 000 polling stations? Something that, incidentally, they were unable to do back in 2006.

What is clear is that Mexican politics are far from being as mature as circumstances require and we get lost, sadly, in scandals which do not facilitate solving the country's problems.

Sunday, May 06, 2012

Debates, Institutions, and Distrust

Just a few hours before the first presidential debate one should stop and think how we come to this date. It is hard to face it, but there are little or no expectations about what might happen in the debate. One of the most prestigious political marketing consultants in Mexico, Gisela Rubach, put it briefly in her Twitter account: "This Sunday’s debate will determine who is gets the number 2 slot".

In other words, do not expect too much of a debate with a rather stiff format. A debate where cameras will be zoomed in on whoever is talking, most likely without a boom, an open microphone, so you will only hear whoever is on your TV screen, and, with nothing but 30 minutes for each candidate.

In such a short time, candidates most probably will reiterate the general lines of their campaign ads. Ms. Vazquez Mota will insist in that she is “different”, but will not tell us why she is. Mr. Enrique Peña Nieto will tell us that he does not want to split the country, without any explanation. Mr. Andrés Manuel Lopez Obrador will tell us that both PAN and PRI are nothing but the same and that we must vote for him.

The organizers keep telling us that there will be exchanges; but with 30 minutes per candidate it will be difficult to go beyond the same platitudes that have marred the presidential contest. It is hard to expect any change because the questions for the debate are extremely broad, allowing the candidates to avoid, with relative ease, any specific or technical answer. There are no mechanisms to force some degree of technical precision.

If they offer a million or one million and a half jobs, there is no way to force them to tell us how they will achieve such goals. A basic comparison between the debate in Mexico and the debate between François Hollande and Nicolas Sarkozy in France is shocking. Here in Mexico each candidate will have 30 minutes.

The French candidates had 75 minutes per person, plus the time to each of the two moderators. That is without taking in consideration that the French debate had wide camera shots, open microphones, and the very setup of the TV studio. In Paris, everything seemed to facilitate the discussion. In Mexico City, everything seems to preclude any exchange. Moreover, in Paris the moderators had the authority to force answers from either Sarkozy or Hollande.

In light of these differences it should not surprise the arrogance of Mexican TV mogul Ricardo Salinas Pliego who decided not to broadcast the debate in any of the two TV Azteca national networks. To this sad story of the Mexican presidential debate one should add yet another problem: the conflicting distrust in the two highest authorities on electoral matters in Mexico.

First, the Federal Electoral Institute, or IFE, has been far too lenient with the parties and Ricardo Salinas Pliego. The Federal Electoral Tribunal, Trife, on the other hand issued on the early hours of this Saturday, May 5th, a rather troublesome ruling forbidding the IFE from carrying a “quick count” after the election.

The ruling came after the Democratic Revolution Party, the largest left-to-center party in Mexico, filed a complain against the the IFE’s decision to carry the the" quick count ", as it has been done in previous presidential elections. This ruling raises several questions. Why the PRD filed the complain when it should be interested in giving certainty to the election? This question raises more questions:

Does Andrés Manuel Lopez Obrador, the left-to-center candidate asked for this? What reason could there be to maim the electoral authority? Was this a decision pushed by Manuel Camacho Solis, the broker of the endless struggles of the Mexican left? Was this a decision of the national leadership of the PRD? If so, is this yet another expression of the endless struggle between Mr López Obrador and the PRD leaders?

There are too many questions and all very difficult to answer. One needs to keep in mind that eliminating the IFE’s "quick count" does not preclude the parties or any pollster from organizing their own "quick counts". Killing the IFE’s "quick count" will generate a period, who knows how long, of uncertainty about the election.The electoral court's reasoning is rather poor. The judges say that "IFE used a fuzzy reasoning when it approved the quick count".

However, it is hard to understand the judges ruling, but even if they are right, this does not invalidate, on the one hand, the need to have a "quick count" as complement all the other tools available to the public on Election Day to know who wins the election. On the other hand, it does not invalidate the "quick count" technique as such.

The Trife had a choice to demand a better implementation of the “quick count”. What is ludicrous is to say that we can forget about the “quick count”. The Trife seems to be out of touch regarding the overall trust in the Mexican electoral authorities. Trust is not the fruit of isolated acts. It needs redundancy, that is to say, it needs systems and instruments supporting other systems and instruments if they fail.

I do not know if the judges are too influenced by the overall perception that the election is already decided with a wide margin, but that would be absurd. Although all the available surveys give a wide lead Mr. Peña Nieto, that advantage will narrow, so the need for exit polls, “quick counts”, and other instruments will be higher.

Having a "quick count" organized by the electoral authority could be extremely useful to avoid the kind of uncertainty we had back in 2006. The electoral authorities, IFE and Trife, have been unable to promote trust in their actions. IFE, as an example, has been extremely weak in its dealing with media mogul Ricardo Salinas Pliego. Trife’s ruling on the “quick count” far from strengthening the IFE, its administrative pair, weakens it further. One should keep in mind that IFE has been hostage of the levity, arrogance, and diva attitudes of some of the council members.

In March, as an example, the council members were forced to put some limits to the astronomical bonds and perks they were going to assign themselves after the election. These excesses were tamed only after the public outrage at the council members was way too evident. It is worth keeping in mind that trust in IFE is still recovering from the 2006 slump brought by the fickleness and irresponsible behavior of then Chairman, Luis Carlos Ugalde.

Now, according to data from Consulta Mitfosky polls, only 28 percent of Mexican citizens trust the IFE, 41 percent have some trust on the electoral authority and 27 percent have little or no trust in IFE (see third chart on page 7 of report).

These numbers are very bad for an institution as important as IFE should be and if one adds the decision to ban the "quick count", there is little or no chance to overcome the effects of the 2006 election night. And the worst part is that 24 hours before the debate, instead of talking about what the candidates are telling us, we are talking about the lack of trust in the electoral authority. Take counselor Marco Antonio Baños’s behavior.

Far from contributing to improve the overall conditions in which the election will happen, he seems to be determined to encourage confrontation. One only needs to see his exchanges with Raul Trejo Delarbre, a prestigious scholar at UNAM’s Institute of Social Research.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

The end of the first third

Mexico is at the end of the first third of the presidential campaign. It is time to measure what the candidates and their parties have done so far.

The worst performance of the electoral season comes from Josefina Vazquez Mota, the right-to-center candidate of the incumbent party. Her campaign has been marred since day one with the failed inauguration of her campaign at the Estadio Azul in Mexico City. Ms. Vázquez Mota campaign has been a string of errors without some counterweight suggesting that things will get better from here on. Something that would have allowed her to hint where she wanted to go was to distance herself from Fernando Larrazábal, the former mayor of Monterrey, Mexico’s third largest metropolitan area. Far from it, Ms. Vázquez Mota kept Mr. Larrázabal close during a campaign drive in Monterrey.

In doing so, she protected and endorsed Mr. Larrazábal. Keeping Larrázabal away was important for Ms. Vázquez Mota because she has been pushing to eliminate the full-blanket immunity protecting all Mexican top-level officials. Far from breaking with Larrázabal, the conservative candidate endorsed him as a candidate for the House. Moreover, Ms. Vázquez Mota has failed to understand how to operate and work around the social networks.

This was clear, for example in the episode at Tres Marias, which quickly spread through social networks, while her team tried to counter with an “old media” approach, including carefully edited videos aimed at discrediting what had been published in Twitter already. More recently, it was noteworthy how she added more than 87,000 new followers on Twitter, on a single night!  Most of these new followers, however, were newly created accounts, publishing nothing but information related to Vázquez Mota, nothing but BOTS.

The remainder of Ms. Vázquez Mota campaign has been a regrettable string of errors and mishaps coming out of her campaign manager, Roberto Gil Zuarth. The have been some snapshots of what her campaign could have been: the removal of the full-blanket immunity. These flashes, however, give no hope of a consistent performance in the immediate future.

 The PRI candidate, Enrique Peña Nieto, has hardly had a setback and, most of them do not go beyond some minor exchanges in either Twitter or Facebook. He has been severely criticized for his unwillingness to grant interviews with impartial journalists and he avoids going deep to explain some of his proposals. The only exception was the interview with Ciro Murayama for the National University TV channel.

Overall, Peña Nieto appears as an unsinkable battleship. The latest accusation seems to come out of a 1978 film by Arturo Ripstein, The Hell with No Limits, inspired by a José Donoso novel. The film broke several taboos at its time for Roberto Cobo’s performance as a transvestite. In real life, Enrique Peña is accused of having sustained a homosexual relationship with a teacher in his native State of Mexico and of ordering or consenting a severe attack on the professor, who now lives as a refugee in the U.S.

 It is not clear what will happen with this accusation, and as Guadalupe Lizárraga tells in her account of the story, several Mexican and US media dismissed the story. There is an ongoing judiciary process, but it is not clear what will come out it. What is clear is that, until now, is that the Peña Nieto battleship remains unsinkable. All the available surveys tell a story in which Peña keeps a comfortable lead and the changes happen among people who originally were on the Vázquez Mota camp now moving to Mr. López Obrador side.

Apparently, the Vázquez Mota campaign acknowledges this and that is way now she throws punches at both Peña Nieto and López Obrador. Peña is sticking to his “I will not divide Mexico” plea and there seems to be little or no reason for him to change. However, despite all this advantages the PRI campaign also has trouble figuring out how to behave in the social networks.

It is possible to see among Mr. Peña Nieto supporters a certain attempt at crushing their opponents. One possible reason for this is the PRI interest in winning both the presidential and the congress elections, by locking at least the 42.2% of the congressional votes. However, even if this is the case, it hard to understand why the PRI is acting the way they do.

The most pessimistic available estimates give the PRI-Greens coalition 266 out of 500 seats in the House. The most optimistic scenario gives them up to 303 seats in the House. In any of both scenarios, the PRI-Greens coalition will have enough votes to pass any bill, provided it does not involve amending the Constitution, since they will also control the Senate.

Finally, Mr. Andrés Manuel López Obrador had a very good performance during the first month of campaigning. The most important is to eradicate the perception that Mr. López Obrador is a radical. Even the polls of the Reforma group of newspapers, that frequently punish leftist candidates, acknowledge a remarkable improvement in Mr. López Obrador performance. In the Covarrubias y Asociados poll, a pollster close to the Mexican left, he appears in a tie with Ms. Vázquez Mota.

However, there are also some problems. As with the other candidates, Lopez Obrador has troubles figuring out how to manage his presence in the social networks. If one wants to find reasons not to believe the argument of the “Republic of Love” all one needs to do is to follow some Twitter and Facebook die-hard accounts to see how they attack and insult anyone who dares to criticize their presidential candidate, revealing intolerance.

It is hard to think that a presidential candidate will get a free pass on each of their proposals. The most loyal to Mr. López Obrador would do well to acknowledge what reveals clearly. This Web site is part of an academic project to understand the role of social networks. They use the Twitter feed to provide a living picture of the campaigns in that social network. The most interesting fact is in its page “If Mexico was Twitter”, as it tells us that as far as Twitter is concerned Mr. López Obrador is king.

The Website has devised an algorithm allowing to measure actual, real, activity on Twitter, i.e. the activity resulting from discounting BOTS accounts. In doing so, Mr. López Obrador has a 40.24% of the activity, Peña Nieto has 36.08%, and Vazquez Mota gets 23.68%

These numbers obviously do not correspond to those of most of the surveys available in Mexico that place, all of them, Peña as the leader of the pack, with Vázquez Mota and López Obrador struggling for the second position. The numbers coming out of about the activity on Twitter reveal how effective has been the López Obrador campaign to attract sympathizers, but also reveals that there is a huge gap between the activity at Twitter and what happens outside of Twitter.

Internet access in Mexico, including the so-called smart phones, is heavily biased due to income. Another aspect that talks about the intolerance of some of the most faithful to AMLO can be seen in the way they whip unfavorable polls, while they happily cheer at the surveys giving an overwhelming advantage to their candidate in the Mexico City mayoral race, Mr. Miguel Mancera.

One key flaw is that none of the candidates has presented a glimpse of how they expect to have the moneys to keep their promises for better and new services. None of the candidates has told how they will fund such promises. López Obrador keeps telling that he will reduce the salaries of top officials of the executive branch, but there is no way such cuts will be enough, especially since he is promising lower prices of electricity and gasoline. Lower wages of public officials is positive, necessary and possible, but these economies are not enough to fund his proposals. All candidates must explain how they will finance their proposals.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Obrador is coming back

It was easy to see it coming. Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the left-to center Mexican presidential candidate is already in a virtual tie with Josefina Vázquez Mota. Actually, on Thursday, April 19, Mr Obrador took the second position in ISA-Milenio daily presidential poll, Mexico’s most contested poll these days. The shift is the logical outcome of both some mistakes in Ms. Mota team, and some good moves in Mr Obrador campaign.

The key to this change has been mr Obrador’s decision to avoid all the mistakes he did back in 2006 and the perfect place to show his transformation was the meetings that Obrador and the other presidential candidates had with the Roman Catholic Bishops of Mexico.

The Mexican Bishops hold two annual meetings, one after Easter, and the other right before Advent. Mr Obrador attended the meeting, paying no attention to the most radical wing of his movement, and using it as a way to build bridges with actors that were pretty much against him back in 2006. This approach has been successful enough to get Mr Obrador a key endorsement from laureate poet Javier Sicilia. Mr Sicilia, leader of the Movement for Peace with Dignity and Justice, said that Mr Obrador “is the best” presidential candidate in the race, although Mr Sicilia insisted that he will void his vote.

Ms Mota’s position is by far the hardest at this point, mainly because of the legacy of the current government, and the growing rebellion in her party’s ranks. Ms Mota is not only competing against other registered candidates (Obrador, Nieto, and Quadri), but also against an independent presidential candidate, Manuel Clouthier, who was elected in 2009 as a member of the federal parliament. Mr Clouthier was not only a member of the same ruling party, he is also the son of one of the Mexican right-to-center most beloved leaders. On top of that, Ms Mota faces a series of mishaps in the nomination of parliamentary candidates, and a break-up of the relations between her party and social leaders in the Benito Juárez borough of Mexico City that ended up with a bloody beating.

Ms Mota adhered firmly to the official position of the Roman Catholic Church on abortion and same-sex marriages. In doing so, she dismissed the poor performance of Mexican economy and the growing concentration of income. Her firm acceptance of the Church’s official position on abortion and same-sex marriages probably helped her score some points with some bishops, but is very difficult to assume the same among the public.

As usual, Mr. Enrique Peña Nieto, candidate of the Revolutionary Institutional Party, the party that ruled Mexico for seven decades, avoided any clear-cut definition. He said that he is against abortion, but he also refused pursuing policies leading to penalizing women who choose to have an abortion.

It is important to keep in mind that 2009 and 2010 were the years when a wave of reforms to state legislation in 18 (out of 32) states set different types of punishments on women and doctors performing abortions. These changes came as a response to reforms in Mexico City in 2007-8.

Mr Nieto unwillingness to make clear-cut definitions on key issues will be the overall approach of his campaign from here until July 1st. It will be up to his party to challenge his rivals’ assertions. Most notably, his party will take care of the accusations from the ruling National Action Party claiming Mr Nieto is a liar.

Such accusations already lead to an unusual debate among leaders of both the ruling National Action Party and Mr. Nieto’s party in the streets of Tlalnepantla, one of Mexico’s City most crowded suburbs. The debate was brief, heated and full of outbursts, and insults, so the moderator called it off.

The ruling party must be careful because, for better or for worse, one can verify, and accept or reject any of  the more than 600 commitments publicly signed by Nieto as the governor of the State of Mexico, the most populated state in the Mexican union.

On the other hand, one cannot do the same with most of the current national government campaign promises. Felipe Calderón, as an example, said back in 2006 that he was willing to become the “president of employment”. One cannot verify such statement. Moreover, the National University released this week a detailed analysis of Mexican labor market. The study states that 55 percent of the newjobs in the last five years were informal jobs. The same study underscores that unemployment in Mexico grew by 33 percent over the same period.

Even when one considers the key policy of the current administration, Mr Calderón’s war on drugs, the results are poor. This week the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees set the number of persons forced out of their homes in no less than160, 000. One should add to this figure any number between 30, 000 and 60, 000people dead because of violence, on top of unreported figures of wounded, widows, widowers, and orphans.

Hence, one should ask what is going to come out of the “mud wars”. Although such “wars” are rather common in established democracies, it is important to take into consideration that there is a huge deficit of trust in the Mexican electoral authorities. Six years ago, it was very hard for Mr. Calderón to be sworn as president in the House of Representatives, and if one is to believe in Mr. Obrador, there was a huge risk of a break-up of social order in the country.

As usual, the wildest performance of the week came from Gabriel Quadri, the candidate of the Nueva Alianza (New Alliance) Party, who refused any kind of evaluation ofthe teachers. Nueva Alianza is a party funded by the coffers of the all-mighty Teacher's Union in Mexico, the SNTE.

One thing to keep in mind as Mexico goes deep in the campaign season is that in France there is a good chance that the challenger, Mr. François Hollande will beat the incumbent, Nicolas Sarkozy. Mr. Hollande’s candidacy is important because he has proposed a bold 75% tax rate on any person with a yearly income of over one-million euros.

This is important because one of Mexico’s key challenges is to develop an overhaul of the tax code. If Mr. Hollande wins in France there is a good chance that all over Europe and, eventually in Latin America, there will be pressure to introduce major changes in the tax code. Without such changes, it will be very difficult for the candidates in the Mexican race to achieve any of their major goals.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

The problem with Mexico: 25 theses

The problem with Mexico and especially with Mexican elections is that:

  1. Due to poor design, mistakes of key functionaries, or lack of legitimacy, institutions remain weak.
  2. Candidates, party leaders, and key functionaries of the federal and local governments in charge of the institutions, the federal electoral authority (Instituto Federal Electoral) included, dismissed painful recent experiences emphasizing short-term goals over long-term aims.
  3. The election, especially the TV and radio ads, became a mudslinging contest.
  4. The intensity of the attacks plays now a key role in preventing agreements among the political forces.
  5. To think that “such is the modern way of a democratic polity” is misleading and appears as an ad-hoc response of the PAN to justify what was a witch-hunting campaign against López Obrador.
  6. The TV and radio, overwhelmingly owned by private corporations, emphasize their own political agendas over their commitment with truth and the free flow of opinions.
  7. Despite improvements in the literacy rate, the readership of newspapers and magazines is low.
  8. Access to Internet is heavily biased by income distribution.
  9. Numbers 4 through 8 limit our ability to communicate with each other and to reach agreements.
  10. That is why for a large number of people, the evidence presented by the IFE and the media about the July 2nd election is hard to believe.
  11. That is also why many Mexicans are willing to embark in vast social mobilization to challenge the outcome of the election.
  12. Recent efforts to improve access to electronic media, via community radio stations, have been blocked by the new laws regulating the media, one of the few reforms passed during the Fox administration.
  13. Mexico is one of the most unequal countries in a region (Latin America) known by its awful patterns of income distribution. Income distribution inequality was not invented by López Obrador and it is not true that we need to grow (more) before distributing the wealth.
  14. Party and congressional leaders have been unable to reach agreements to introduce a major tax reform to address income distribution inequality.
  15. Big business owners are unwilling to support reforms to address income distribution inequality.
  16. Blaming Andrés Manuel López Obrador of preaching “class struggle” is just a partial truth.
  17. Another partial truth is blaming Fox for not addressing the structural sources of distribution inequality or to label him as a puppet of big business.
  18. Another partial truth is to blame the PRI for these issues.
  19. However, the three major parties in Mexico have played a key role in preventing, at different points in time and for selfish and opportunistic reasons, tax reforms to address income inequality and to release some of the social pressure created by it.
  20. López Obrador needs to realize that his motives are not transparent and are not equally perceived by all the political actors in the country. For many of them he is using these features of Mexican reality for selfish purposes.
  21. Most of these failures and the source for so many partial truths come from the fact that candidates and party leaders have little or no incentives to reach agreements to confront the issues at hand, as there are much more incentives to prevent agreements.
  22. A weak presidency combined with a strong federalism, as in contemporary Mexico, makes harder for candidates and party leaders to reach agreements and hampers the chances to consolidate democracy.
  23. There is little or no interest among the political elites to talk about possible changes to presidentialism.
  24. The only option presented so far to address the maladies of presidentialism, that of ballotage or a second round of presidential elections, have had negative outcomes in other countries in Latin America.
  25. Right now, the best hope for Mexico is the Judiciary. However, a deep paradox exists there as the Judiciary was an institution heavily attacked by Andrés Manuel López Obrador during his run as mayor of Mexico City.

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Monday, July 03, 2006

Mexico, Deep in the electoral labyrinth

July 2, 2006 will go to the annals of Mexican history as the night that never ended.

After more than seven decades of relatively smooth and predictable transitions from one government to the next, Mexico found itself confronted, heavily divided, and with little or no chance of a smooth solution in the near future.

The best case scenario, as things are now in Mexico, is that populist leader Andrés Manuel López Obrador will acknowledge what appears to be an extremely narrow but consistent defeat to share the spotlight as opposition leader with other figures of Mexican politics.

However, the chances of such “best case scenario” are slim to none as Mr. López is known for his confrontational style and, more importantly, by his emphasis on mobilization politics. Not only that, even if he was willing to acknowledge he will have to deal still with many of his supporters who are far more radical and confrontational than him.

That is why it is hard to think about a possible easy way out of the current impasse in the Mexican election.

It is true, the Preliminary Electoral Results Programme (PREP, by its acronym in Spanish), has been reporting a slight advantage for the conservative candidate Felipe Calderón Hinojosa since the closing of the election booths. The advantage has been going from less than .50% to little more than 1.2%, and by Monday’s afternoon it was of little more than 300 thousand votes.

Tight rules
However, given the tight rules of the Mexican electoral laws, the Federal Electoral Institute, or IFE, was unable to declare a winner and had no confidence on its own numbers to officially declare advantage to any of the candidates. His president, Luis Carlos Ugalde, a young political scientist with little or no practical political experience, appeared twice on Mexican radio and TV to congratulate the workers of the federal electoral authority, while asking the parties and their candidates to avoid what ultimately happened.

In the absence of official numbers, the IFE decided to wait, giving both López and Calderón a chance to be declared by their parties as winners. To make matters worse, the leader of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, the party that dominated 70 years of Mexican politics, decided not to acknowledge the numbers provided by the PREP.

Mariano Palacios Alcocer, a former president of a small public university and former governor of Querétaro, asked Mr. Ugalde to avoid declaring a winner on July 2. It will be hard to believe that Mr. Palacios Alcocer had the political muscle to force something like that. Mostly, because the PRI’s candidate, a former governor of Tabasco, Roberto Madrazo Pintado, had the worse performance of any PRI presidential candidate ever.

What was clear, however, is that neither Mr. López nor Mr. Calderón had the trust in their own numbers to go out and declare themselves winners. When they did so, both appear nervous. Mr. López’s fiery rhetoric was out, while Mr. Calderón appeared on TV sweating heavily, unable to spark his own plug. Both cited their own exit polls as sources, but at the same time, both lacked the spirit that shaped their performances during the electoral campaign.

Extra Bandwidth
During Monday morning and early afternoon, Mexico has been possessed by the need for extra bandwidth to keep PCs connected to the PREP’s various mirror websites where we were able to see how the data from each of the country’s electoral booths were transmitted to the IFE’s mainframe to be displayed, almost in real time, in thousands of PCs all over the country.

As much as the PAN was able to win both houses of the Congress, its candidate advantage over Mr. López never went beyond the 1.0%, probably in any other country that will be enough to settle the score of an election with a robust 59% turnout.

However, in a country marred by deep and wide social divisions, one of Mr. López’s favorite campaign topics, the rather slim margin of victory of Mr. Calderón, has prompted all kinds of conspiracy theories.

These theories find fertile ground, among many other reasons, because of the many shenanigans marring Vicente Fox’s term, most notably, his rather ludicrous attempt to promote Mrs. Fox, his wife, as his successor.

But also—and this is very important to take into consideration—because of the perception that even before election day there was a rather robust agreement among the political and entrepreneurial elites to prevent Mr. López from becoming President.

Many of the most important Mexican private firms in Mexico City, Guadalajara, and Monterrey allowed for the participation of their employees in “seminars” whose main purpose was to “prove” the kinds of risks that electing Mr. López implied for the rather weak Mexican economy.

Not only that, many of the largest firms exerted their own kind of veto by signaling their reluctance to invest in Mexico if Mr. López was elected. The message, however, was not powerful enough to prevent a strong performance of Mr. López, the best ever for a candidate of the Partido de la Revolución Democrática.

Mr. López fueled these concerns by launching bitter attacks on key leaders of the Mexican entrepreneurial elite. Most noticeable were his critiques against the former owner of Banamex, Banco Nacional de México, the eldest Mexican bank which ended up its independent life when US based Citibank swallowed the Mexican bank in a heavily contested buyout.

This issue was particularly sensitive as later it was discovered that Roberto Hernández, one of the former owners of Banamex, was able—thanks to Mexican hole-ridden tax laws—to avoid paying any kind of tax on the huge profit that he pocketed.

Naïve Politics
López Obrador was naïve enough to assume that his bitter accusations against Hernández and many other Mexican fat-cats were going to be forgiven or forgotten by the Mexican entrepreneurial elite; one of Latin America’s more organized and sensitive to any such criticisms.

Not only that. As much as López Obrador was hitting soft-spots in the relation between Fox and key Mexican businessmen, he had a rather obscure relation with several local entrepreneurs in Mexico City. Riobóo, a local builder in Mexico City, was awarded several uncontested, unpublished contracts. Also, key members of López’s party, the Democratic Revolutionary Party were involved in a video-scandal starred by Carlos Ahumada, another local builder, who handed out undisclosed amounts of US dollars to Lopez’s underlings.

Ahumada has been in a local Mexico City jail for the last two years, following a rather anomalous process that involved being deported from Cuba where several sources claim that Mr. Ahumada was “squeezed” by Fidel Castro’s underlings. It is not clear where is the “juice” of such squeezing, but the Cuban government has acknowledged that it impounded several videos taped by Mr. Ahumada himself, where political and economic operations were recorded in painful detail.

What is clear, then is that as much as Mr. López’s criticism of the wrongdoings of the Mexican business elite are perceived by many as legitimate, his own record is far from clear.

The Desafuero

Not only that. It is necessary to acknowledge that the episode of the “desafuero,” a rather arcane process, similar to an impeachment in the US political system, by which the Mexican Congress retires the immunity that high-ranking officials of the Mexican Federal and local governments have, also prompted all kinds of criticisms against Mr. López.

Mostly because he used the powers of Mexico City’s mayoralty to mobilize media, unions, students, and the elderly (whom were benefited by a bold program of universal pensions providing little more than 60 US dollars to each person older than 65), to support him in challenging both the Congress and, more importantly, the Judiciary.

The episode took Mr. López to the peak of his popularity in Mexico City, but sparked broad concerns in other regions of the country, as they were seen as the prelude to a new wave of populist politics in Mexico, bringing back—with the help of the media—bad memories from the 1970s and 1980s and, more importantly, linking the Mexican election with other elections in South America, particularly with Venezuela and Bolivia.

Those memories played, months later, during the heat of the political campaign, a key role in PAN’s mudslinging media campaign presenting Mr. López as “a treat,” and/or as the inheritor of presidents Echeverría and López Portillo style of politics.

In the end, Mr. Fox intervened blocking the accusation brought by the Judiciary against Mr. López, leaving the whole process in a politico-judiciary limbo that strained even more his government’s relation with the Revolutionary Institutional Party, a key supporter of the proceedings to stripe Mr. López from his immunity.

In the end, the election was extremely tight. Mr. Calderón was not as attractive as a candidate as his own party, in similar fashion to Mr. Madrazo, while Mr. López out-performed the coalition of parties supporting him.

If nothing changes in the coming hours, Mr. Calderón will be president and he will have weak but consistent support in the House and the Senate of the Mexican Congress. That will give Calderón an edge that neither Mr. Zedillo nor Mr. Fox have had in recent Mexican history, as both were confronted by powerful parliamentary groups of the PAN and the PRI, respectively, unwilling to collaborate with them.

The PRD will be confronted with the demons of the rather loose coalition created by Mr. López, while the PRI, heavily wounded by his presidential candidate poor performance, will remain a key player in Mexican politics, although it is almost impossible for it to avoid a deep reform.

Otherwise, if Mr. Madrazo remains in charge with no sign of a deep ideological and organizational reform, the PRI will delude rapidly through alliances with some of the other parties.

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Monday, June 26, 2006

Mussings on the Mexican Election

With less than one week before the presidential election in Mexico, the dust begins to settle as the candidate of the Democratic Revolutionary Party, Andrés Manuel López Obrador has sent his first conciliatory message. His message of conciliation and willingness to prevent post-electoral conflict comes as some kind of surprise as the media campaigns in Mexico reached a new low in the relatively short history of open electoral competition.

The message reflects, on the other hand, the fact that López holds a small but consistent lead in almost all the polls taken before the poll-curfew enforced by the federal electoral authority in Mexico, the Instituto Federal Electoral.

Despite this change, it is necessary to emphasize that the Mexican election confronts unexpected challenges. The most important of them come from the Southern state of Oaxaca, where Elba Esther Gordillo, the leader of the Teachers’ Union, the Sindicato Nacional de Trabajadores de la Educación, decided to support long-time critics of her within the union itself as a way to “get even” with the presidential candidate of the Partido Revolucionario Institutional, Roberto Madrazo.

Ms. Gordillo is still, nominally, a member of the PRI. Moreover, she was elected as General Secretary of the PRI at the same time that Madrazo was elected president of that party.

However, differences in the relation with the Mexican Federal government, and more specifically with Vicente Fox, broke the feeble alliance between Madrazo and Gordillo. Since then, Mrs. Gordillo has launched a series of attacks on Madrazo that included the creation of a new party, the Partido Nueva Alianza, who was expected to capture at least 1 million votes, as that is the number of members of the Teachers’ Union.

Despite such assumption, Nueva Alianza appears in most polls as unable to gather the minimum 1% of the overall vote to keep its registration.

The conflict in Oaxaca has deep roots as often times the local section of the Union has confronted on several issues the leadership of Mrs. Gordillo, however, at this point they found themselves in a situation in which both Mrs. Gordillo, the raucous local 22 of the Teachers’ Union in Oaxaca, and several former governors of the state hold—for different reasons—grudges against the current governor, Ulises Ruiz, and Mr. Madrazo.

This is more important, as Oaxaca is a vital reservoir of votes for Madrazo and the PRI, so preventing a relatively smooth evolution of the election in this state means trouble for Madrazo and the PRI at large, as they really need the votes from Oaxaca to boost their performance.

The key problem for Mrs. Gordillo, however, is that his election is showing how fragile is the hold that the old union leaders in Mexico have over their members and grass-roots organizations.

In recent days, as an example, the leader of the Confederación Revolucionaria de Obreros y Campesinos, decided to publicly express his support to López Obrador, a rather shocking development as the CROC has been a union relatively loyal to the PRI. So loyal, that the leader of the CROC in the Southern state of Yucatán rejected his national leader’s commitment, committing his own support to Mr. Madrazo.

As it is frequently the case in Mexico, the intensity of the conflict in Oaxaca has been overstated by the Mexican national media and by the international media paying attention to it, as both follow their own strategies of “news building.” However, it will be foolish to assume that there is no potential in the current conflict in Oaxaca to go out of control, specially now that the local 22 of the Teachers’ Union has increased its visibility, as it was able to force the creation of a commission seeking to establish some form of dialog between the state government and the union’s leaders.

It is interesting to stress the role that one of Mexico’s few representatives of the Liberation Theology, Bishop Arturo Lona will have, as his involvement in the solution of this issue appears as a sequel of that of the Catholic bishops during the conflict and talks in the neighboring state of Chiapas.

The risk, of course, in those kinds of scenarios is that, as in Chiapas, opportunistic "leaders" as Rafael Sebastián Guillén, aka Subcomandante Marcos, will try to seize control of the social movement to subordinate it to his larger agenda.

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