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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