From Cárdenas to López Obrador: Why the Mexican left just can’t win

It’s been a bad century or so for you if you’re a Mexican leftist.

Barring a huge upset, Sunday’s presidential and parliamentary elections are not going to change that.

Despite coming within a very narrow margin of winning Mexico’s presidency in 2006, the candidate of the leftist Partido de la Revolución Democrática (PRD), Andrés Manuel López Obrador seems likely to do much more poorly this time around — despite a poll boost that’s seen him overtake Josefina Vázquez Mota, the candidate of the Partido Acción Nacional (PAN) earlier this month, and despite an anti-PRI youth movement, #YoSoy132, that has rallied opposition to the PRI (although not necessarily in favor of the PRD).

López Obrador — or “AMLO” as he’s known in the media and among his supporters — is holding a large rally in central Mexico City today to wrap up his presidential campaign, starting on the Reforma, Mexico’s grand avenue, and marching all the way to the Zócalo, the central square of Mexico City.

And while he may well come within single digits of the frontrunner, Enrique Peña Nieto, candidate of the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI), it seems almost assured that 2012 — like 2006 and so many elections before it — will not be the year for Mexico’s left.

López Obrador, who has, fairly or unfairly, been tagged as a bit of a messianic figure in Mexican politics, refused to cede the PRD’s presidential nomination to his successor as Mexico City’s mayor, Marcelo Ebrard.  Ebrard, who lacks López Obrador’s baggage and who is viewed as much more centrist, could well have given Peña Nieto a strong run.  Given the recent success in several 2010 gubernatorial races of PAN-PRD coalitions, it is possible that Ebrard could have challenged Peña Nieto in a two person-race on such a PAN-PRD banner nationally.

López Obrador served as the head of government in Mexico City from 2000 to 2006, and he emerged as the wide frontrunner to succeed the PAN’s Vicente Fox.  Fox tried to have López Obrador disqualified from the election by tying him up in trumped-up court charges, and the PAN’s presidential campaign in 2006 basically painted him as a Mexican version of Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez.  While that negative campaigning was certainly painting a far more negative portrayal than reality, López Obrador’s insistence with sticking to traditional themes of the Mexican left — unapologetic statism and subtle strains of anti-Americanism — did not do his campaign any favors.  This time around, he’s embraced a more centrist message, including a goofy “República Amorosa” (loving republic) slogan designed to soften his image.

But López Obrador’s real problem in 2012 may be his own actions after the 2006 election, the memory of which have endured to his detriment.  Defeated by 0.56%, he organized rallies to demand a recount and decry the fraud that he argued kept him out of office.  The protests culminated in an occuptation of Mexico City’s Zócalo, where López Obrador was mock-inaugurated as the “Legitimate President” of Mexico.  Despite some initial sympathy, his protests backfired ultimately.

Since the end of 2006, López Obrador has been seen as somewhat of a gadfly, and he has subsequently backtracked and apologized for his reaction to the 2006 election.

It is understandable, however, why López Obrador and his supporters would so strongly protest his election loss, given a history the shenanigans that have plagued the Mexican left.

Se cayó el sistema

The Frente Democrático Nacional, the forerunner of the PRD, came into existence in the late 1980s among a band of priistas who had become dissatisfied with the PRI’s move toward free-market capitalism in 1982 under Miguel de la Madrid.  In the 1988 presidential election, one of the PRD’s founders, Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas, the son of beloved Mexican president Lázaro Cárdenas, was leading polls against the PRI’s candidate, Carlos Salinas.

On the day of the elections, Cárdenas was leading in the vote count when the government announced that the computer system crashed (“se cayó el sistema,” which entered into the Mexican political lexicon immediately as a euphemism for electoral fraud).  When the computer system was finally up and running, Salinas was in the lead and declared the official winner.  It is widely thought that Cárdenas, in fact, won the 1988 election.  He did not, however, recapture the same wave of popularity in 1994 and in 2000, when he won less than 20% of the vote.

Salinas enshrined the free-market reforms of his predecessor, putting Mexico on an orientation that would continue under Ernesto Zedillo in the late 1990s and under Fox and current president Felipe Calderón.  As Julia Preston and Samuel Dillon reported in their masterpiece 2005 work, Opening Mexico: The Making of a Democracy, Salinas continued to bear a grudge against Cárdenas and the PRD in ugly ways:

Nonetheless, Salinas continued to consort with the PAN, even while he engaged simultaneously in a brutal confrontation with [Cárdenas and the PRD].  The discrimination against Cárdenas’s followers was so stark that it became known, with sour irony, as Salinas’s “selective democracy.”  The unsolved murders of Cárdenas’s campaign aides, Francisco Xavier Ovando and Román Gil, set the tone for the blood feud that the Salinas government waged.  The President never openly encouraged the attacks, but neither did he categorically condemn them.

Salinas harbored a visceral enmity for Cárdenas, in part because of the vituperation that Cárdenas had heaped on him in the presidential election, in part out of lingering insecurity about his own mandate.  The PRD in turn rejected Salinas’s government as illegitimate…. Salinas’s loathing of Cárdenas was one reason why he hesitated to embrace democracy more fully.

Preston and Dillon also note that the priistas held the PRD in especially low regard because the PRD had successfully won the votes of the rural campesinos that had traditionally formed the backbone of the PRI’s corrupt electoral machine.

Maybe institutional, but not revolutionary

In fact, for all of the folderol about social justice, Mexico’s “institutional revolutionary” party spent much of its seven decades in office as conservative and reactionary.  With the exception of the Lázaro Cárdenas administration of 1934 to 1940, the PRI has not been a party incredibly devoted to anything leftist.  Perhaps the only truly revolutionary president since Mexico’s revolution, Cárdenas ended the de facto reign of Plutarco Elías Calles, invited into government voices from the middle and lower classes, redistributed 45 million acres of land to campesinos, established secular public schooling, ended capital punishment, nationalized the country’s railways and oil industry and improved the state’s strained relationship with the Catholic Church.  He is, in many ways, Mexico’s answer to Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

In the 1970s, I suppose, you could argue that Luis Echeverría and his successor, José López Portillo, were “leftist,” but it would probably be more accurate to call them blundering statists at best and authoritarian kleptocrats at worst.  Echeverría would never live down his role as interior secretary during the Tlatelolco massacre of 1968, although he nationalized several industries, embarked on more land reform, lent his support to Chilean socialist Salvador Allende, and increased subsidies in education, health, housing and among Mexico’s poor. He still managed to amass perhaps one of the worst environmental records in Mexico’s history, draining water away from irrigated land in northern Mexico and destroying Mexican forests nationwide.

López Portillo continued many of the same statist policies — ever larger handouts and a healthy dose of graft.  But he did so on fiscal steroids, enabled by rising oil prices, a windfall to the Mexican government of the 1970s.  It all came crashing down in 1982, however, when galloping inflation and high debt resulted in López Portillo devaluing the Mexican peso and trying to nationalize the country’s banks.

López Portillo, like his friend and mentor, Echeverría, had a penchant for stifling dissent.

Statist or not, it seems unfair to say that the Mexican left had “its chance” in the 1970s.

No Mexican Lula in sight

So today, on the cusp of what seems likely to be another defeat, Mexico’s left is still mired in dreams deferred.

But for all the obstacles thrown in its way, the PRD itself has made plenty of its own mistakes, too.

For one, it has never branched out of central and southern Mexico — politics in northern Mexico remains mostly a two-party affair, between the PRI and the PAN.  Cárdenas won the first-ever election for the head of government post in the Distrito Federal in 1997, and López Obrador and Ebrard held it easily in 2000 and 2006.  Polls show that on Sunday, Miguel Ángel Mancera, the PRD candidate and former attorney general of the DF, will also easily win.  It is a huge power base for the PRD — the DF has a larger population than any state in Mexico (other than the state of Mexico that surrounds the DF like a horseshoe, and where Peña Nieto ).  Outside of the DF, however, the PRD holds just four governorships outright: Baja California Sur, Chiapas, Guerrero and Michoacán.

Unlike the PAN and the PRI, the PRD has never been the largest party in the Cámara de Diputados — its high-water mark came in 2006, when it won just 157 seats out of 500.

Furthermore, as it was founded as a splinter group from the PRI, it has remained a refuge for those priistas who have found themselves on the losing side of intraparty squabbles — most recently, one of the most egregious priistas, Manuel Bartlett, who himself had a role in denying the presidency to the PRD in 1988, is running for Senate in Puebla under the PRD banner.  That does nothing to build the PRD’s credibility.

But perhaps most importantly of all, the PRD and the Mexican left have refused to modernize or acknowledge that the Mexico of Lázaro Cárdenas — or even of the 1970s — has changed.  Notwithstanding the peso crises of the 1980s and 1990s, Mexico’s economy continues to grow and more Mexicans than ever have been lifted out of poverty and into a growing middle class over the past three decades.

For example, at a time when Peña Nieto is holding up Petrobras as an example of public-private collaboration, López Obrador remains committed to the statist model.  But it was Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, Brazil’s leftist president, who accomplished much of the Petrobras reform, delivering welfare payments,and health and education improvements to the poorest Brazilians while embracing free-market capitalism simultaneously.  Lula is perhaps the most renowned of many such recent center-left leaders in Latin America — including Ricardo Lagos and Michelle Bachelet in Chile, and Alan García and now, Ollanta Humala in Peru.

Meanwhile, López Obrador has been unfairly lumped with the more populist (and sometimes authoritarian) left of Chávez, Cuba’s Fidel Castro, Bolivia’s Evo Morales and Néstor Kirchner and Cristina Fernández de Kirchner in Argentina.

In reality, perhaps, the Mexican left is the worst of both worlds: it lacks both the colorful personalities on Latin America’s populist left (while reveling in its statism) and the forward-looking policy orientation on Latin America’s technocratic left (even as it remains committed to democratic pluralism).

When the PRD starts to pick up the pieces of yet another defeat after Sunday, its next leader — Ebrard, Mancera or whomever — will do well to keep those examples in mind.  Mexico in 2012 is not going back to nationalized industries and unionized Zapatista campesinos; rather, the heart of the Mexican left’s power lies in the middle-class protests of the #YoSoy132 movement, which demand a strong economy with jobs for Mexico’s increasingly educated workforce and a government that is less corrupt at every level.  Therein lies the way forward for the PRD.

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