Mexico’s Elections and the Deepening Crisis of Political Legitimacy

By  |  4 / July / 2009

On July 5, nearly 77.5 million Mexicans will be eligible to cast ballots for a new federal Congress and local governments in some states. The big issue hanging over this year’s election is whether many people will even bother to vote, and how many of those who do turn out will cross out their ballots or opt for write-in candidates.

Punctuated by continued outbreaks of narco-violence, human rights violations, repression of social movements and economic recession, a crisis of popular legitimacy surrounds the 2009 elections.

Proceso magazine columnist Javier Sicilia characterized the emerging protest vote as “the only dignified democratic exercise in these miserable times.” Mexico, Sicilia wrote, is trapped in a situation in which the state is subordinated to the market and in which politics is defined by the “corruption of a parasite class that impoverishes the country.”

Lay-offs brought unemployment to a 14-year high and the key tourist industry reported a drop of 5.9% in the number of foreign visitors during the January-April high season. Family debts with mainly foreign-owned banks now account for 13.62% of the nation’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP), according to the latest media reports. Surpassing earlier projections, Mexico’s GDP is now expected to shrink 8-10% this year, putting the country’s current economic situation in the same class as the 1994-1995 crisis that tore apart the economic and social fabric.

While negative or hollow campaigning dominates the airwaves and printed media, new citizen movements have expressed outrage over corruption and impunity across the country. In recent days and weeks, thousands have taken to streets to protest the murder of Ciudad Juarez Professor Manuel Arroyo Galvan, to demand justice in the trampling deaths of 12 youths at the News Divine disco in Mexico City last year, and to show deep-felt revulsion over the deaths of 48 children who died in a June 5 daycare center fire in Hermosillo, Sonora—an incident some experts compared to a napalming.

In the mountains of Guerrero state, a resurgent Revolutionary Army of the Insurgent People (ERPI) is pitted against the Mexican army and paramilitary groups tied to drug traffickers. In a statement, the guerrilla leadership said a series of clashes with the Mexican army left at least three soldiers dead in June.

Amid a crisis-ridden political and economic landscape, many people say they have no faith in any of the country’s eight competing political parties. Many people have stated their intention to line up to vote but leave their ballots blank, mutilate the ballot or scribble in the names of write-in candidates.

Abstaining from voting, especially during mid-term elections like this year’s, or casting protest ballots, is old hat in Mexico. The difference this time around is that widespread, organized efforts have emerged to encourage the protest vote.

The 2009 race has opened a political can of worms, encouraging protest vote movement and other expressions of citizen initiatives outside the formal party structure. One group called Mexico SOS spearheaded by businessman Alejandro Marti is calling on congressional candidates to sign an agreement with his organization that commits political hopefuls to live up to their promises once they attain office.

Other citizen proposals are in the air to cut the number of elected representatives in the lower house of Congress from 500 to 300, allow for the reelection of congresspersons and other officials, recognize independent candidacies, slash politicians’ high salaries, reduce the number of political parties, permit citizen referenda, and allow for the recall of political office-holders.

Given widespread disgust with political parties, some look to social movements as the fix to solving Mexico’s troubles. As the lead singer for the Mexican alternative rock and ska group Maldita Vecindad, Roco has traveled widely throughout Latin America and the United States. At the 24-year-old group’s frequent concerts, thousands of clench-fisted youth cheer Roco’s admonitions against war, imperialism, state repression and applaud his praises of indigenous cultures, natural foods and popular revolts.

In an interview, Roco said the Zapatistas, the Oaxaca Popular Assembly of Peoples and other movements all were seeds for a new Mexico born outside the confines of the political party plantation.

“People are transforming reality on the margins of the political parties,” Roco contended. “The only way to change the country is for the people to organize.”

A Microcosm of Contemporary Mexico

Located almost in the middle of the Mexican Republic, the city of Aguascalientes is in many ways a microcosm of the rest of the nation. Aguascalientes hosts an important maquiladora, or offshore assembly, sector, which has been hard hit by the global economic crisis. More than 13,000 people have reportedly lost jobs locally since the end of last year.

An important seasonal tourism industry revolves around the annual San Marcos National Fair, which was truncated this year by the swine flu scare. Many locals have either worked in the United States at one time or another or have relatives and friends residing in El Norte. Once-tranquil Aguascalientes has also witnessed a jump in crime and narco-violence during the last four or five years.

A visit to the “City of Hot Waters” reveals the multiple dimensions of the Mexican crisis. At the city’s main bus station, a military policeman and state police officers with a big dog prowl the grounds.

Across the street, a huge billboard in English spells "Easy Pawn" and projects the image of a smiling young woman with a turquoise necklace who directs potential customers to an outlet below of the US chain EZ Pawn. "We lend you more for autos and motorcycles" promises another sign above the door.

Down the street from EZ Pawn, more pawn shops tempt the needy. On a recent afternoon, a half dozen women along with a man and some small children waited for a branch of National Monte de Piedad pawn shop to reopen after lunch.

None of the women milling outside Monte de Piedad wanted to be identified, but all voiced a common complaint: wages are too low, and many people who still have jobs in the industrial sector are on reduced hours. They desperately needed money, they said, to pay for next year’s school registration fees, student uniforms, books, backpacks, food, and more.

In Mexico, basic public education is free under the Constitution, but resource-strapped schools commonly charge parents fees. "Everyone needs something," one woman said. When asked about the July elections, she repeated a refrain heard throughout the country. "Politicians make promises and when they get to power, they don’t come through."

The Debate over July 5

Like elsewhere in Mexico, people in Aguascalientes are debating whether to sit out the July 5 election, show up to cast protest ballots or vote for candidates. The Autonomous University of Aguascalientes recently hosted a forum on the protest vote that considered pro and con viewpoints.

Alejandra Pena, a political science student, said many people who were once associated with Federal Electoral Institute’s get-out-the vote campaigns were now advocating protest voting because the current political system was “not happening” for them. Students were divided about 50-50 on the question of the protest vote, Pena said. “On the other hand, we have people who advocate voting for the least worst (candidate).”

Academic researcher and federal employee Guillermo Ornelas took the side of the protest vote. The movement, Ornelas maintained, was a way of throwing cold water in the face of political parties divorced from the realities of most Mexicans. “They ask for the vote of the poor to protect the rich,” Ornelas maintained.

The protest vote was not an absolute rejection of the political party system, but a peaceful, “painful vote” to force needed changes, Ornelas said. “Although the protest vote is a nauseous reaction to the menu, it is also an opportunity to change the diet,” the political analyst contended. “The idea is to throw out (protest voting) once democratic conditions exist in Mexico to participate in a different way in favor of the parties.”

Griselda Macias Ibarra, professor of political science at the UAAC, spoke against the protest vote. Based on a calculation of polls showing voter preferences, Macias argued that casting worthless ballots would ultimately benefit the nation’s two largest parties, the PRI and PAN, and result in a bi-partisan duopoly of political power.

All political parties enjoy a hard-core base of followers, and the PRI in particular has historically been favored by low voter turn-out. “This is a way for the most powerful to win in 2012,” Macias insisted.

Promoters of the protest vote held the first national assembly of the movement in Mexico City on June 30. Several hundred people representing 45 organizations from several Mexican states agreed to push general demands after next Sunday’s elections. The demands include respecting direct democratic forms like citizen referenda, recognizing non-party citizen candidacies, curbing the power of political parties, and ensuring more accountability from public officials. Endorsers of the assembly included Propuesta Civica, Ciudadanos Libres and Anulo Mi Voto, among others. A second national assembly is tentatively scheduled for July 18 in the state of Jalisco.

In a separate analysis, Proceso magazine writer Jesus Cantu outlined how large-scale protest voting could actually wreak havoc on the political system. According to Cantu, annulled votes, whether deliberate or mistaken, averaged 2.76 percent of the total vote count in each of the four federal elections from 1997 to 2006.

Updated federal election law requires recounts if the number of annulled votes is greater than the difference of ballots between candidates with the first and second largest number of votes. Given Mexico’s long history of post-electoral conflicts, it is not difficult to envision new outbreaks of political mayhem after July 5 if the protest vote reaches massive proportions.

In this year’s election, some individuals and groups are pushing write-in candidates. In Aguascalientes, the Saturday cultural supplement of the local edition of La Jornada newspaper has served as the launching pad for the candidacy of Chepito Marihuano, a reborn character originally created by the famed artist Guadalupe Posada more than a century ago.

Chepito’s platform includes the massive planting marijuana to combat the greenhouse effect, making the San Marcos Fair an endless event, requiring night school to raise the “cultural and academic level” of congressional representatives, turning the prehistoric seed-flipping game of matatenas into the national sport, and implementing a new economic model based on hot dog and sandwich carts, among other measures.

“We’ve seen that the neo-liberal model has its enormous failures,” said Chepito Marihuano Collective member Jesus Reyna in an exclusive interview. “We saw it fail in the entire planet, so we will look to mico-jobs to generate a popular force and establish a new global economic model- with tortas (sandwiches),” Reyna affirmed.

Satirizing ex-President Luis Echeverria’s campaign slogan of “Up and Forward” decades ago, the Chepito Marihuano Collective has adopted its own slogan: “Down and Backwards,” a theme collective member Eva Teran considered more “realistic.”

Although it remains to be seen how many people will spoil ballots or vote for imaginary candidates like Chepito Marihuano, prominent journalist and political analyst Miguel Angel Granados Chapa said on his television program Encuentros that the amorphous protest vote movement had already achieved a “cultural victory” over the monopolized discourse of the political parties.

Predictions abound that the former ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party will win the July 5 elections. A PRI victory could put the party that was born from the 1910 Revolution and later widely disgraced in a viable position to reconquer Los Pinos, the Mexican White House, in 2012.

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