A Brief History of Mexico
Part Six: Democratization
By Steven Alexander
In 2000, Vicente Fox of the National Action Party (PAN) was elected president of Mexico. The nation held its breath for a moment as outgoing President Ernesto Zedillo of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) passed the presidential sash to Fox at a ceremony conducted in the Chamber of Deputies in Mexico City. The event marked the first peaceful transition of political power from one party to another in Mexican history. Democracy had finally arrived in Mexico.
Fox had won the presidential election with a plurality of 43% of the vote in a three-way race. The PRI candidate finished second and the candidate of the Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD) came in third. The PRI was being held accountable for a long history of graft and corruption during its 71-year-long rule in Mexico, with opposition coming from both sides of the political spectrum. Fox’s right-wing PAN party had been around since 1939 but had little success with Mexico’s overwhelmingly left-of-center electorate. However, as the corruption scandals of the PRI became more prominent in the news and in the minds of Mexican voters, the PAN gained momentum as a viable opposition party. The PRD was relatively new, having formed in 1988, when a coalition of socialists and left-wingers abandoned the PRI to form a party of their own. The Mexican Congress was split among the three parties, with none holding a majority. Fox would have to rule a divided government.
At the time he took office, Fox was the 48-year-old former president of Coca-Cola of Mexico, who had served one term as governor of Guanajuato. In an American-style political campaign, complete with extensive television advertising and public debates, Fox had promised to clean up government and put an end to “la sistema,” the whole system of corruption that had become a way of life throughout Mexico during the long rule of the PRI. But his presidency was dogged by scandals of his own. The PAN was accused of using illegal foreign funds to help finance its election campaign and Fox himself was accused of having used government resources to make expensive improvements to his rancho in Guanajuato. Under the rules of the Mexican constitution, presidents are limited to a single six-year term in office. Six years after his election, Fox was gone…but la sistema survived.
Some Mexicans will remember Fox for his close cooperation with good friend George Bush, for initiating the crackdown on drug traffickers and for increased privatization of the Mexican economy. But most will remember him as the inspiration for a common barroom gag: If you drink Presidente brandy and try to order a “Presidente derecho” (straight Presidente), the bartender will shake his or her head from side to side and tell you, “Lo siento, eso es imposible.” (Sorry, that’s impossible.)
The 2006 presidential election was amazingly close. The official tally gave the PAN candidate Felipe Calderon the presidency with 35.89% of the vote. The PRD candidate, Andres Lopez Obrador, finished second with 35.31% of the vote, a difference of about one-half of one percent. The PRI candidate, Roberto Madrazo, finished a humiliating third with only 22.26% of the vote. Of course, with an election this close, any irregularities would be scrutinized by the losing side. In this election, there were an estimated 30,000 irregularities affecting millions of votes. During the night of the election and throughout the following day, vote tallies from throughout the country changed inexplicably in what loser Lopez Obrador referred to as “el baile de los numeros” (the dance of the numbers). There was a superficial recount of 10% of the vote followed by a federal court ruling declaring the results final. In December of 2006, amid massive protest demonstrations in the streets and fist fights in the Chamber of Deputies, Calderon took the oath of office.
At the time he became president, Calderon was the 44-year-old son of the co-founder of the PAN. He had joined the party at an early age and rose quickly through the ranks to become a party leader. Calderon had twice been elected to the Chamber of Deputies from his home state of Michoacan and had served as a cabinet minister in the Fox regime. When Fox criticized him for ignoring his official duties while concentrating on his quest for the presidency, Calderon resigned so he could devote his full energies to achieving his presidential aspirations. Now that he had realized that goal, Calderon found himself in charge of a government that was considered illegitimate by a large segment of the Mexican population.
Four years into his term of office, Calderon has continued the pro-business, anti-union agenda set by his predecessor, Fox…but without the comic relief. Calderon is stern-faced and strong-willed. You really don’t want to mess with him. When 40,000 electrical workers at a government-owned public utility went on strike, Calderon’s response was to close the company, fire them all and dissolve their union.
But the main preoccupation of the Caldron regime has been the war on drugs. Immediately upon taking office, Calderon declared war on the drug cartels. Under Fox, Mexico had stockpiled military hardware from the U.S. Under Calderon, they actually put all that hardware to use, chasing down and arresting or killing all the traffickers they could find. The traffickers have fought back by rearming with more sophisticated weapons and by assassinating some of the more aggressive police and public officials. After four years, this war on the drug cartels has become increasingly unpopular in Mexico. Nearly 30.000 people have been killed by the action or caught in the crossfire. The city of Juarez is under military occupation. And tourism, Mexico’s largest industry, has taken a severe hit due to the continued violence.
At this point, there’s a great deal of nostalgic yearning in Mexico for the good old days when the PRI exercised some control over the traffickers, mediating their territorial disputes and keeping the bloodshed to a minimum and a lot less public. Some Mexicans find this a funny notion, one that appeals to their ironic and sarcastic sense of humor. For others, it actually makes a lot of sense. For their part, the PRI has sworn off drugs…and corruption too. The PRI’s solution to the war on drugs is to neutralize an already out of control situation by simply legalizing drugs. Legalization would mean an immediate drop in the price of drugs, eliminating the megabucks incentive for the traffickers as well as the temptation for politicians to get in on the action.
In fact, the PRI has undergone a remarkable makeover of late. The party has made great strides in distancing its image from the corruption scandals of the past and in staking out the middle ground between the parties of the left and the right. Party leaders and are now chosen more democratically, rather than through the old patronage system. And candidates for elective office are now chosen through a primary election that is open to all voters, regardless of their party affiliation. Is the PRI officially rehabilitated in the minds of Mexicans voters? Well, according to opinion polls, if the elections were held today, the PRI would win. But the next presidential election will be held in 2012 and a lot can happen in the meantime. We’ll see….
Steven Alexander is a former journalist and award-winning sports writer. He is retired and lives in Ajijic.