Mexico readying to oust the right wing?

News Analysis

Political turmoil in Mexico may portend a leftward motion.

In 2000, angered by scandals involving the long ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) and declining living standards, Mexican voters elected as president Vicente Fox Quezada of the right-wing National Action Party (PAN). Fox won on the basis of a moderate image and a slick media campaign.

Some prominent figures of the main left-wing opposition, the Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD), helped confuse the public by supporting Fox, saying that this was the only way to get the PRI out. So Fox, an executive of the Coca-Cola Company with little political experience and no coherent program, charmed the voters and won.

Now Fox is in trouble. The economy continues to decline. Crime has exploded. Young women continue to be murdered in horrifying numbers in Ciudad Juarez, and nothing is done. The Zapatista rebellion in Chiapas has settled down into a 10-year armed truce, without a settlement in sight, because neither PAN nor PRI members of Congress are amenable to making meaningful concessions. No party has a majority in Congress, which leads to stalemate.

A bitter blow to Fox has been the attitude of the Bush administration. Fox has been accommodating to Bush to the point of servility, but has been treated shabbily in return. Because Fox, heeding public opinion in Mexico, did not support the U.S. on Iraq, Bush has stopped talking to Mexico about immigration reform, one of the main things that Fox has promised the Mexican people. So he has little to show for his first four years.

Yet Fox and his supporters keep pushing the right-wing, neoliberal line. For example, last week they set off a confrontation by sharply cutting federal aid to Mexico City schools, and earlier this year by moving to cut the benefits of health care workers.

Most surveys show the strongest candidate for president in 2006 is the regent, or governor, of the Federal District — the area including Mexico City — Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador of the PRD. Lopez Obrador is popular because he is tough and forceful, and because he has increased social services to the poor in Mexico City.

Like some other PRD leaders, Lopez Obrador was originally active in the PRI, but broke with it over its slavish allegiance to the neoliberal model of economic development. He made a name for himself leading efforts to prevent the privatization of natural gas resources in Tabasco before being elected to his present post.

The ability of Lopez Obrador to win depends on a number of things. First, the PRD itself is a shaky vehicle. Its membership is heterogeneous, including former members of the PRI, of the Mexican Communist Party and other left and center-left groups, and thus it has monumental internal fights. Second, Lopez Obrador has to disentangle himself from some controversies.

There is a corruption scandal that appears to be a setup against Lopez Obrador by both PRI and PAN politicians. There is also a legal case against Lopez Obrador for allegedly having defied a court order to stop work on a hospital driveway, which Lopez’s predecessor had began building on land seized from private landowners. If the Congress strips Lopez Obrador of his immunity regarding the latter, he may become legally ineligible to run.

But the PAN also has a candidate problem. The Mexican Constitution forbids Fox from re-election, and most other PAN leaders are hard-right figures who do not have Fox’s personal appeal. Fox’s wife, Martha Sahagun, backed off from suggesting her own candidacy when cries of nepotism arose. The PRI, still mistrusted by many, has an effective political machinery in many areas, and is eager to make a comeback.

The anger created by neoliberal, pro-corporate policies continues to generate mass resistance. Unionized workers in Mexico’s national health care system are furious with Fox for attacking their job benefits, and have mobilized effectively. National feelings have been hurt by the contemptuous attitude of the Bush administration, and there are militant protests against the construction of a giant Wal-Mart store on the grounds of the important archeological site containing the ruins of the ancient city of Teotihuacan.

If the left can connect with these grassroots trends, it seems likely that the PAN will be ousted after one term in the presidency. Whether the PRD or the PRI will occupy its place remains to be seen. Stay tuned.

The author can be reached at pww@pww.org.