What’s New about the “New” Mexico

by | Oct 25, 2001

On July 2, 2000, Mexican voters brought to an end seven decades of one-party authoritarian rule. Just over a year later, Mexico continues to feel the repercussions of this momentous victory. Despite the other issues piling up on Mexico’s political agenda a still unresolved bank bailout, continued conflict in Chiapas, persistent poverty, a weakening economy, etc. the themes that won Fox his office continue to resonate with Mexican citizens.

I happened to be in Mexico, as an electoral observer, on the day Fox won (It takes a healthy sense of the absurd to monitor elections abroad when one’s own electoral system is utterly broken). Duly accredited by Mexico’s Federal Electoral Institute (IFE), I was subsequently lured into participating in a quick count sponsored by Mexico’s umbrella electoral watchdog group, the Civic Alliance. With no unbreakable obligations in Mexico City, I agreed to be shipped off to the boonies for election day. There, amidst the chickens and the burros, the sun and the dust, I had a worm’s eye view of Mexico’s peaceful revolution.

My outpost on July 2 was a rural-ish pueblo called Santiago Tlacotepec, on the southern outskirts of Toluca. The lower-middle neighborhood around our polling station normally a schoolyard looked to me like PRI territory. And as far as I could ascertain, no opposition candidate had ever been elected to so much as dogcatcher.

Balloting started late, owing mainly to the fact that the IFE representative in charge of setting up the station, an affable young man in his 20s, was nursing a Mexico-sized hangover. But by 9:30 a.m., there were two separate voting stations, each staffed by three dutiful citizens, plus two representatives from the National Action Party, four from the PRI, the IFE rep, and, of course, one foreign meddler.

Occasionally, a flying squadron of additional PRI officials would swoop into the schoolyard, talking importantly on a cell phone and muttering instructions to the other PRI reps. Sometimes they harangued voters outside the schoolyard, but once inside the sacred voting area they behaved reasonably well.

The only trouble came around 11 a.m., when one of them tried to have a PAN representative expelled from the voting area for standing too close to the ballot boxes. This proved a mistake. The two PAN reps, it turned out, were a married couple, and they had brought their eight-year old daughter along for kicks. With his wife and child looking on, Señor PAN was in no mood to back down. He puffed out his chest, and the obligatory yelling match ensued. His daughter, a few yards away, promptly burst into tears.

At this point, I thought the panistas might retire. Instead, Señora PAN set down her rather fashionable purse, knelt down, looked her daughter straight in the eye, and said in a firm, maternal tone, Listen: now is the time to be a brave girl. You must not cry and you cannot go home. They will always try to make you feel afraid, but you have to stand up and fight for your rights.

Whereupon Mexico’s youngest panista stopped crying, brushed a few strands of dark brown hair away from her face, and marched across the schoolyard to inform a flabbergasted PRI official that she and her mother and her father would stay right where they were, and would not be afraid, and would not go home, no matter how mean he was or how much he yelled.

So Mexico, it appeared, was building a civic culture, one eight-year-old at a time.

Aside from that incident, the rest of the balloting was disappointingly normal (Political scientists, while abroad, generally prefer trouble to calm, as long as the trouble is not directly life-threatening. When there’s no trouble, we have to interview people). So the IFE rep and I staked out a spot in the shade to split a beer. This seemed to revive him, and I got to hear at some length about the origins of his abiding interest in grassroots activism, including his past work for you guessed it! the Civic Alliance.

The PRI reps, by contrast, were not very talkative. Mr. Cell Phone proved pleasant enough, but he was soon summoned electronically to pester citizens elsewhere. Most of the PRI reps assigned to the station seemed a bit confused about exactly why they were there. When asked who they thought would win, they smiled nervously, looked down at the ground, and then looked back over their shoulder to see if Mr. Cell Phone was watching.

The one exception was a local school administrator, who was also, conveniently, head of the local teachers union. She had firm and disapproving views on many things: the Civic Alliance, the IFE, Mexico’s new electoral system more generally, my presence in Santiago Tlacotepec, and (I presume) my mid-morning beer. Her function that day was hard to misunderstand. She alternately smiled and scowled at voters, staring most intently at the ones that had some connection to the school or the municipal government.

Fortunately, she couldn’t see what they did behind the little plastic curtain of the voting booth. And as it turns out, the voters seemed to know that.

With the local cacique busy trying to save Mexico for clientelism, corporatism, and the PRI, I spent most of the afternoon chatting up los PAN. Señora PAN was active in the Church and had preferred the PAN for a long time, but she had become a true believer only since Fox declared his candidacy. Her husband, a self-employed businessman, had accidentally attended a 1988 rally featuring charismatic PAN candidate Manuel Clouthier and joined the party on the spot. Fox’s candidacy had reenergized him. For both of them, making sure the PRI didn’t steal the election in their town seemed like a perfectly good way to spend their Sunday.

As it turned out, citizen activism in my little corner of Mexico was not particularly unusual. In 2000, opposition representatives covered approximately 90% of the voting stations in the country for at least part of the day, with the heavy lifting done by the panistas. Collectively, Mexico’s opposition parties almost matched the PRI’s coverage, a remarkable tribute to more than a decade of vigorous civic mobilization.

Voter participation, it turned out, was also typical in my corner of Santiago Tlacotepec. Ballots cast by the registered voters in the area reached about 62%, just a couple points below the national average. And, as elsewhere, the voting went off without any serious hitch. Cell phones and scowls aside, there were no irregularities. By six o’clock, it was all over, and the only thing left to do was lock the doors and count the ballots.

I have rarely been surprised by a simple stack of papers, but I was appropriately amazed to watch Fox’s pile climb high above that of his rivals. When I rushed to a pay phone to call in the results for the quick count, though, I learned that our station was hardly unusual. Television stations were already reporting the results of exit polls in two key gubernatorial contests, with the PAN far in front. Before midnight, President Ernesto Zedillo would embrace the results of the election, and Francisco Labastida would gracefully concede defeat.

And so Mexico’s old regime disappeared, not with a bang but an election.

By the time I got back to Mexico City that evening, the party in the streets was already underway. Fox supporters had flooded the area near the famous statue of the Angel of Independence, spilling out for blocks along Reforma Avenue. Cars honked in sign of support, and Fox campaign slogans echoed down the boulevard. Vicente Presidente, Ya (Now!) and Hoy (Today!) all made their appearance. But the throatiest cheer in my area of the crowd was also the most direct: arriba, abajo, el PRI se va al carajo (loosely translated, To Hell with the PRI). Better than anything else, it summed up the rationale and the inspiration for Fox’s victory.

By the time Fox, himself, arrived to address his supporters, the crowd was euphoric. But at that point, a new cheer arose: No nos falle (Don’t fail us!). At the climax of his long campaign, in the same moment he celebrated his victory, Mexico’s next president was being warned.

And that was pretty much that. Most of the fiestas at the Civic Alliance, Reforma newspaper, the IFE, and on the streets of Mexico City petered out early. (It was Sunday night, after all, and panistas have to get up and go to work on Mondays).

I couldn’t sleep, of course. I had always envied my older colleagues who were lucky enough to be in Berlin when the Wall came down, or in Moscow when Boris Yeltsin rallied his supporters atop a tank. I was even secretly jealous of my father, who in a fit of adolescent idealism had tried unsuccessfully to join the Hungarian uprising of 1956. But that night was even better: here was all the drama of regime change, and without any of the tanks.

So I amused myself by making a list of all the people, places and things that would disappear in the new Mexico: high-ranking officials I would never have to be nice to again, Excélsior newspaper, academics in Mexico and the United States who had linked their fortunes to that of the ruling party, Washington insiders who supplemented their income by opening doors for corrupt Mexican officials, the cacique in the schoolyard, a system of concessionary capitalism (in which profits were privatized to large enterprises while losses were socialized through government bailouts), long-winded expositions on Mexican sovereignty when foreign governments offered disaster relief assistance, labor racketeering, pictures of the president handing out land titles to duly deferential groups of peasants, who, in the months preceding the election, stenciled the initials of the ruling party on every square inch of wall space?

Some of the items on my list, I must admit, evoked a bit of nostalgia. It was hard for me to imagine, for instance, what function the Civic Alliance might realistically have in an era when the IFE did such a good job of policing elections. And the attractive shirt store downtown, operated as a lark by the mistress of a government crony, probably wouldn’t survive his impending salary cut. But at least my favorite taco stand a couple blocks away would do just fine. After all, the PAN had always said encouraging things about small business.

If this was the future of Mexico same food, different government it was hard to feel pessimistic.

I returned to Mexico recently, as a sort of high-priced tour guide for a group of mid-career fellows from MIT’s Sloan School of Business. The capital feels a bit different now that Mexico is a democracy. Pollution is down, the peso is up, and the street taxis are slightly less likely to abduct their passengers. Casual conversations about politics with its parliamentary bickering, partisan sabotage, scurrilous gossip, and gloves-off press scrutiny are more reminiscent of inside-the-beltway Washington talk shows than the tea leaf-reading that went on under the old regime.

People seem positive about their new system, in a diffident sort of way. According to incessant polls by the country’s leading independent newspaper, Reforma, Fox remains popular. Although several points down since his inauguration in December, he enjoys approval ratings that would turn most chief executives green with envy.

The main reason, of course, is that Mexico’s political transition is not yet complete, and the themes that Fox raised in his campaign still command attention. Although the PRI has lost virtually every serious electoral and policy contest since July 2, 2000, it remains Mexico’s largest party. Feeding off its carcass still promises politicians ample nutritional value.

Reflecting on all this only reinforced for me the lesson of Mexico’s 2000 election: that most Mexicans continue to detest the PRI and will reward politicians willing to serve as focal points for their outrage. When Fox launches attacks on the remnants of the old regime, at the state or national level, he reinforces the electoral dynamics that brought him to power and retains support. When he pursues a more partisan agenda, he dilutes that dynamic and loses points. Thus, Fox’s most costly decision to date has been to propose extending Mexico’s value-added tax to food and medicine (which were previously exempt). And the most disillusioning development however trivial it may seem may well turn out to be recent revelations about the purchase of luxury household items in the presidential palace for Mexico’s new First Couple.

Also questionable at least from a political perspective is the administration’s decision to refrain from investigating and punishing former officials for corruption. Ordinary Mexicans, it seems, do not share the Fox administration’s policy of forgive and forget. Reforma’s most recent survey, for instance, shows that Mexicans favor punishment over reconciliation by a two-to-one margin.

It is this desire for an end to impunity, for a definitive break with the past that carried Fox to power in the first place. And in the new Mexico, unfortunately, this desire remains only partly satisfied. One year after his surprise victory, change remains Fox’s mandate.

Fall 2001, Volume I, Number 1

Chappell Lawson is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His scholarly writing (on Mexican voting behavior) is better documented and includes the requisite fancy statistics.

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