Monday, June 19, 2006

The Mexican Hot Summer

On July 2, Mexico will elect President, members of the two houses of the federal congress, and an assortment of local officials in states such as Nuevo León, Jalisco, Sonora, Morelos, Chiapas, and the country’s capitol city, the Federal District.

The election has been on the making pretty much since the end of the 2000 election, mostly because of the ability of then recently elected mayor of Mexico City, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, to position himself as a “natural” candidate to succeed Vicente Fox.

Not only that, Mr. Fox’s presidency was marred from the very beginning from a series of shortcomings. These shortcomings were connected, on the one hand, with the novelty of the whole process. After all, it was the first president elected from a party other than the Revolutionary Institutional Party in 70 years.

There was too the issue of the lack of experience of Fox himself and key top officials of his administration, such as the former secretary of the Foreign Office Jorge G. Castañeda and the former secretary of the Interior, Santiago Creel. In addition, it was possible to notice the tensions and stress created by the constant interference of Marta Sahagún de Fox, originally the spokesperson of the Presidency and later wife of Mr. Fox. Finally, it is important to stress the role played by the very flaws in Mexican institutional.

Here it is important to notice that it is there, in the shared fascination with the presidential regime where most of the problems associated with the performance of Latin American democracies exist. However, with the exception of specialized journals and textbooks on Latin American politics, there is little about the role that such flaws have.

In Mexico, those flaws were tamed by the extra-legal powers of the presidency during the years of dominance of the old PRI. Sadly, many of the reforms pursued by the De la Madrid, Salinas, and Zedillo administrations actually undermined the power of the Presidency, without compensating with similar changes in the relations between the Executive and the Judiciary and, more importantly, between the Executive and the Congress.

The Presidential Curse

Consequently, the Mexican presidency as most of its peers in the Western Hemisphere has little or no way to build winning legislative coalitions. Consequently, the ability of the Executive branch to pursue its own goals is greatly reduced and it is forced to operate within the narrow spaces allowed by the Legislative’s branch ability (or lack of it) to reach agreements.

The phenomenon has been discussed in detail in other entries of this blog as it explains many of the misfortunes of Latin American polities, especially those related with the never-ending conflicts between the presidents and their congresses that are at the core of the endless succession of weak presidencies in countries such as Ecuador or Bolivia.

Moreover, in the cases of countries such as Mexico, Argentina, and Brazil, with a rather strong federal design, the governors create an additional source of tension that fractionalize power and greatly reduces the ability of the Presidency to pursue its agenda.

These flaws in the Mexican institutional design contributed to create a climate of growing confrontation with the Congress. On top of it, it is necessary to emphasize the role played by Andrés López Mexico City’s mayor, who right from the very beginning of his administration did as much as possible to differentiate and to compete with President Fox.

While Fox was having problems transitioning from candidate to President, for López there was no real change, as he designed his administration as a six-year electoral campaign for the presidency. To do so, López borrowed many of Fox’s moves during his own run as governor of the state of Guanajuato, with the relative difference that López remained for the most part in Mexico, while Fox engaged himself on a very active international agenda.

One of López’s key moves was to develop early during his term as mayor a vast network of supporters whose main commitment was to him and not to López’s Party of the Democratic Revolution. In doing so, López was able to alienate Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas, the founder and “moral leader” of the PRD who unsuccessfully ran for the presidency in 1988, 1994, and 2000.

Besides building the network of support for his candidacy, López launched what amounts to a bloodless pogrom against Rosario Robles Berlanga, his predecessor in the city’s mayoralty. The pogrom against Robles is still going, as Robles’s former lover and financier, Carlos Ahumada Kurtz remains in one of the city’s prison.

López’s campaign faced a major roadblock when a series of mistakes from underlings at the city’s government detonated a judiciary process that could have been defused by López himself. However, being the greedy politician that he is, he saw in the confrontation with the Judiciary, and more importantly with the Supreme Court, a chance to present himself as a nation-wide champion of those affected by Mexico’s flaw ridden judiciary.

The Desafuero

Fox, his National Action Party, and the Revolutionary Institutional Party actually went through the painful process of retiring the constitutional immunity that López, as any other governor, representative, and senator in the country has. However, after gathering enough votes in the House of Representatives to remove the immunity, Fox decided not to pursue the case.

Fox’s decision was one more of a string of shortcomings when dealing with key issues in his relation with the other branches of the Mexican government. Moreover, it prevented any possible agreement with the leaders of the Revolutionary Institutional Party who had been fighting a series of small skirmishes with Fox and his party.

The outcome of such confrontation was the inability of the Mexican government to pursue any meaningful agenda, but more importantly, it provided López with broad support for his cause.

As the confrontation with López was developing, Fox was unable to prevent an avalanche of criticism against his wife, her Vamos México foundation, and—more important—against Mrs. Sahagún de Fox’s sons from an earlier matrimony.

In the first stages of this conflict, Mrs. Sahagún de Fox remained actively involved in the day-to-day management of Vamos México while keeping open a possible run for either the presidency or Mexico City’s mayoralty for her. Mr. Fox’s presidency resented the effects of the confrontation and even the leaders of the National Action Party expressed concern with such possibility, as it will open the flood of increased criticism for Mr. Fox, while undermining the credibility of the 2006 elections.

In the end, there was no candidacy for Mrs. Fox de Sahagún, but for the most part the damage was done, as a congressional committee was formed to investigate the operations of several firms owned by Mrs. Fox de Sahagún’s sons. The committee is still working and so far, it has been possible to unearth a series of questionable practices that have been heavily publicized in the Mexican media.

Meanwhile, by the end of 2005, Mr. López was elected as presidential candidate of the PRD. Roberto Madrazo, a former governor of the Southern state of Tabasco, was nominated by PRI, after his rival, the former governor of the State of Mexico, stepped out of the primary due to a tax evasion scandal.

Finally, the ruling PAN nominated Felipe Calderón, a short-lived secretary of Energy of the Fox administration, as its presidential candidate in what was a major blow for Mr. Fox within the PAN itself.

Currently, after heavy negative campaigning from both PAN and PRD, the election is—depending on the poll used—either a three-way or a two-way tie between the candidates, and it is hard to think that any new poll will provide more insight into the possible outcome of the election.

López has centered his campaign on promises of harder laws to prevent tax evasion while increasing the role of the government as provider of key goods and services. He has offered also a major tax cut for Mexicans earning more than 500 and less than 900 US dollars a month.

Similar offers have been made by Madrazo and Calderón, who is second in the most recent polls, although they lack the Robin Hood-like approach that is the trademark of López’s “messianic” speech.

Moreover, several political commentators and analysts of Mexican politics, most notably Héctor Aguilar Camín and Enrique Krauze, consider that López’s campaign and attitudes leave little or no room for his eventual, and still possible, defeat on July 2. If that is case, they assume, the country will go deep into a period of political mobilization whose consequences are hard to foresee.

On top of the uncertainty, it is necessary to take into consideration the fact that the election has been affected in recent weeks by the reemergence of rumors of imminent treats of fraud. More importantly, it has been affected by the reemergence of Rafael Sebastián Guillén, aka “Subcomandante Marcos.” After leaving Chiapas, he is now the surrealist self-appointed leader of an ghostly movement who is doing every thing within his power to magnify and capitalize minor and marginal regional movements as a way to present them as part of a large movement to introduce radical changes in Mexican politics.

The Mexican election remains, less than two weeks before the actual vote, an open game. There is little or no indication of what the future may bring to a country that has been up until now an oddity of stability a relatively good mixture of economic and political reforms in an area marred by instability, coups, and the worst income distribution patterns in the world.

Something that we do know at this point is that neither the PRD nor the PAN will be able to control the Congress. It will be once again the PRI the party on control of the Congress. If that is the case, then it is possible to assume that Mr. López's or Calderón's presidency will be marred by many of the same problems and tensions that affect other presidencies in Latin America and the United States.

As the election approaches, I will be posting more frequently in my Spanish-speaking blog México desde fuera, where you can find more information on the current election.

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